Sunday, February 7, 2010

A Rational Sunday Program

Last Sunday I was the main program speaker at our church, a local Unitarian Universalist fellowship. The topic? Our rationing program and why we chose such an undertaking. Over 100 folks politely listened, laughed and provided encouragement for our family while we're on this journey. What follows is the text from my presentation, with the names changed (as usual) to protect the innocent (and the guilty).

A few years back when The Man of the House (TMOTH) was going through a stem cell transplant to cure his Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, my sanity was kept in check through frequent hugs with our two daughters and by lots of reading on 2 subjects: raising chickens in your backyard and civilian rationing on the U.S. home front during WWII. I’m sure some therapist would be able to extrapolate deeper meaning - and multiple sessions - out of that pairing, but I didn't think too much of it at the time. Since the mid-90’s I've pondered the ins and outs of raising chickens, and I’m a born history-geek, so these seemed like nice, safe subjects to explore in the midst of so much chaos and uncertainty.

During that time I could spot a Polish frizzle hen from across the barnyard AND rattle off significant dates in the American rationing time line. While sitting in the rocking chair next to TMOTH in the darkened hospital room I would share helpful information from the books I was reading, such as frizzles do poorly in areas with hard winters (too many big feathers to freeze), AND that sugar was the first food staple to be rationed during WWII. I was never sure exactly how much TMOTH appreciated, or even comprehended, my useful tidbits. After all, he had a lot on his mind during that time, too. But he listened, and I talked. And as I talked I even said crazy things like, “We could convert half of our small greenhouse into a chicken coop,” or, “Say, we could choose to live on WWII rations - ya know, as an experiment.”

Well, as we adjusted to having TMOTH back at home those topics were pushed to the wayside as gloriously mundane thoughts of work and school and laundry and such became the focus of the household once again. I never completely forgot about the chickens and ration points, they just weren't in the forefront of daily conversation. I would still occasionally point out how half of our greenhouse could comfortable house 4 or so hens, or mention that during rationing I would have had to apply to get the extra sugar needed to make the blackberry preserves . But it was all just talk, and to be honest, I was never really sure that I could convince TMOTH to go along with the idea of chickens OR rationing.

And then last fall I read a book entitled, No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet, and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process. The author, Colin Beavan, and his household set about to live one year as carbon-neutral as possible. In New York City. Throughout the experiment they phased-in different elements of eco-conscious living, including eating locally, forgoing prepackaged goods and nearly all forms transportation not power by humans (including elevators). Eventually, near the end of the year, the Beavan family forgoes such staples as electricity and toilet paper.

Now, the point of their experiment wasn't to see how folks would react to that last bit; the point was to undergo a personal journey - a chance to dissect how and why we use resources (and the ultimate implications of those choices). What it means to live in the United States and have an enormous amount of resources available at our disposal, and confronting the chain of events that occurs from using those resources.

Beavan's book (and the related documentary based on their experiment) is enlightening, educational, honest and ever aware of the dangers of falling in to a holier-than-thou attitude when it comes to personal claims of living an environmentally-friendly lifestyle.

I thoroughly enjoyed No Impact Man. I enjoyed the stories about living simply, life in New York and how dogs who live in apartments nearly 20 stories up don’t necessarily appreciate their owner’s eschewing of elevators. But, more importantly, it renewed my interest in my own hypothetical challenge: to live off of WWII rations for one year. I passed the book along to TMOTH, who also enjoyed this story of choices and challenges and morals. It generated great discussions between the two of us, about wants vs. needs, the haves and the have-nots, and the general condition of our planet. During one discussion I brought up the rationing project again. TMOTH agreed to give it a try! I mentioned it would mean giving up things like unlimited gasoline, quality meats or processed snack foods. He still agreed! We talked to our two daughters - Sissy, who’s 9, and Eowyn, who’s 7, and they were quite obliging (I think that might be do to a little “ignorance is bliss“). So, we set a date of Dec. 26, 2009 to begin our rationing experiment.

Don't know much about WWII rationing? Here's your history lesson in a nutshell...Rations were imposed in America once we officially entered the war after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. While other nations, most notably the UK, began rationing (and fighting) years earlier, the US's delay in entering the war postponed any serious changes in resource management. But once the American industrial complex became focused on supplying the needs of the armed forces and the soldiers fighting for freedom, it became clear that Americans’ gluttonous consumption of goods could not continue if the war effort was to be well-supplied while inflation was kept in check. And thus, rationing was mandated.

At first, only "industrial" materials such as rubber and fuel oil were rationed, beginning in early 1942. But soon such staples as sugar and coffee were only available in restricted amounts. Eventually, a majority of food items (sugar, coffee, beef, pork, all canned and frozen foods, cheeses, butter and fats) as well as everyday goods such as shoes, appliances and gasoline, were rationed. Different items were rationed in different ways; points per item or a set amount of goods per person were both common approaches.

Shortages, even of rationed items, became common as the military devoured all kinds of supplies for the war and transport vessels were redirected to war zones and away from U.S. ports. So even if you had enough ration points for a nice lasagna dinner it didn't always mean that those commodities were available for purchase. And while Americans occasionally complained about missing a favorite cut of meat or patching together a pair of worn shoes that would otherwise be replaced, they complied. Granted, there was a black market where one could obtain otherwise taboo or limited items, but the majority of Americans understood that the war, a greater good, needed those resources. In a 1944 poll of Americans, 90% responded that food rationing provided all the nutrition their families needed. Needed. And that was good enough.

In this movement to sacrifice wants for needs, Americans did something amazing: they completely reorganized their consumer habits to work towards a common goal. This was, after all, the Greatest Generation.

But my family and I are not part of the Greatest Generation. And there isn't a unified war against tyrants threatening American freedoms. My husband and I are thirty-something, middle-class, college-educated parents - why would we do such a thing?

Well, sometimes you just need to stretch beyond your comfort zone; to twist and reach and strain to figure out just how flexible (or crazy) you are. Part of this is a bit of a history experiment, too. How many of us have read accounts of pioneers and wondered if we could have hacked it?

Now, let's be honest - this is a lifestyle change for sure. But mostly, this experiment is about learning how much you're willing to change to make a change.

Because if you think about it, there really is a massive war going on. But it’s a different kind of war. Instead of a trench and tank to mark the battlefield, this war takes place in the air-conditioned aisles of a well-lit store the size of an airplane hanger. And we’re all soldiers, because we‘re all consumers.

American’s insatiable drive to buy and insistence on the lowest price has left behind a worldwide mess. There’s no pretty way to describe it. Stripped resources, bald mountains and populations whose meager wages are often times not enough to provide basic shelter and sustenance. Shelter and sustenance - those are needs, not wants.

So, we choose our sides by the purchases we make. When we casually toss that ridiculously-cheap want (not need) in our cart, we choose our side. A side that doesn't connect our actions down the consumer chain, a side that declares that our needs and wants are more important than others in this world who had the unfortunate circumstance of being born outside of the United States.

But what if you dared to make that connection? What if you dared to only consume what you needed, and then as fairly as possible at that? And what if enough people did it so that it made a measurable difference? And what if those now surplus resources were somehow redirected to create change where it is needed? Taking surplus food to areas of starvation, or bottled water to those who indeed lack potable drinking water?

But that’s crazy talk, you say. That would take a lot of change, and people don’t change. But I don’t believe that - change can happen. But, to paraphrase the adage, if we want to see the change, we will have to be the change first.

And so…how are we changing? Well, for one year we’re going to become, in a sense, anti-consumers. Or, at least, really really mindful consumers. But rather than set up some complex system from scratch that is destined to fail because of poor planning on our part, we’re following a veteran system: a system that proved perfectly reasonable and livable: U.S. civilian WWII rationing guidelines.

And what are these guidelines? Here’s the quick list of the restrictions and limits we’re living with for the next year:

Gasoline: We are allowed a maximum of 193 miles per week combined for our two vehicles - equivalent to the 11 gallons per week we would have been allowed during the War if TMOTH’s job equated to a war-supporting industry. Otherwise, if his job didn't earn us the extra bit of gas, we’d only have 6 gallons, or approximately 105 miles.

Sugar: We can purchase a maximum of 2 pounds per week for our family of four (remember: very few prepackaged sweets are permitted during rationing year)

Coffee: Up to 1 pound per adult every 5 weeks is allowed. Neither TMOTH or I are big coffee drinkers (despite being UU), so this doesn't seem like a particularly daunting limit for us.

Canned, Frozen and Processed Fruits, Vegetables and Soups use blue/green ration points (depending on time period), and we‘ll be following point values on a chart from October 1943. Initially, some sloppy note-taking on my part led us to believe that we were allotted 192 of these points per week, which felt so reasonable that during our fourth week of rationing I revisited the original sources to see if that amount was correct. Sure enough, it wasn't. Our family is allotted only 48 (not 192) of these blue/green ration points per week. Big difference. For an example of point values, an average can of pears and a 14oz bottle of ketchup is worth 34 of our allotted 48 points per week.

Meat/Cheese/Oils use red ration points and we are allowed 64 red points per week. We will be using point values on that same chart from 1943. In general, the lower the quality of meat the lower amount of points required per pound. To give you an idea of point distribution, one pound of butter is worth 16 points, a pound of center-cut pork chops costs 10 points and one pound of cheddar cheese costs 8 points. Those three combined are over ½ of our weekly red point allotment.

One note: in the 1940s fresh poultry and fish were not rationed because they were typically only available on a very local basis, but we are including commercially-raised poultry and commercially distributed fish in our rationing program since their widespread availability today rivals that of beef and pork.

Luckily for us, highly-perishable dairy products like sour cream and cottage cheese were not rationed.

Now, because we’re cooky and want the experience to be near authentic, all of the above rations, as well as some additional food items, are subject to change as a result of Mr. Bowles' Amazing Marketplace Scenario Randomizer. This simple system involving a die and two brown paper bags helps replicate the shortages, random point fluctuations and occasional surpluses common during the war. Each week we roll the die to see how many scenarios we will have that week, and then choose a good and scenario accordingly. (Demonstrate). Goods include both rationed and non-rationed items.

By the way, I couldn't help but name this contraption after Chester Bowles who was the first and most influential director of the Office of Price Administrative (OPA) - the government body responsible for the rationing program. Bowles gave up a very successful career in advertisement to volunteer in the Navy during WWII. Although he was rejected on a health concern, FDR appointed him to the OPA. Some folks who were not happy with the rationing program vilified Mr. Bowles, but the more I read about him the more I like him. He said things like, "Government is too big and important to be left to politicians.” Apparently, lots of other people liked him too, as he was later elected as Governor of Connecticut and served as a U.S. Ambassador to India and Nepal. He did one of those “This I Believe” essays in the 1950s and in it he wrote, “The most fundamental of [our convictions to live by] is a certainty that each individual life is a sacred, vital part of the universal whole, and that there is no force superior to the human spirit.” Whoa! Anyone else get a UU vibe there? I did a little research and - guess what? He was a life-long Unitarian! But I digress…

In addition to the above restrictions we have also incorporated a host of self-imposed limitations during the rationing year:

Eating Out: We will eat out at a restaurant as a family only once a month, and I will have one weekend lunch out with the girls just once a month as well. During the week we are scheduled to have our dinner out, our ration point allotments for that week will be decreased by 1/14th.

Limited Processed Foods: Minimally processed and/or minimally-packaged foods will be preferred over other options (i.e. "real" carrots vs. bags of mini peeled carrots, no prepackaged snack cakes or single serving packets of sugar-laden oatmeal).

Seasonal Produce: In general only seasonal fresh produce may be purchased. That means that, right now, our fresh produce selection is pretty much limited to potatoes, carrots, cabbage, mushrooms, onions and winter squashes. Grocery ads from 1943 have revealed that during January and February we are also allowed an occasional sweet potato, broccoli, head of lettuce and citrus fruit. If the produce is way off-season, it must be dried, canned or frozen and thus cost blue/green rationing points.

Soda wasn't rationed during the war, but it also wasn't consumed in the same mass quantities that it is today. To keep with the period, the adults of the house are permitted a maximum of three 12 oz servings per week. In the spirit of sacrifice (and because he’s an all-or-nothing, black-and-white kinda guy) TMOTH has sworn off all forms of liquid caffeine during the rationing year.

Limited New Purchases: Nearly all purchases must be evaluated for needs vs. wants and when possible second-hand options should be considered (Craig's List, Ebay, Goodwill and Freecycle). This type of system is, most definitely, the opposite of instant gratification. We are currently in the market to purchase a used treadmill and used pressure canner, just so you know (wink, wink)!

We're also in the process of re-evaluating our energy usage, so additional energy ration guidelines may be added. We’re good at keeping the thermostat between 60 and 62 degrees during the winter but we're notoriously bad about leaving lights on in unoccupied rooms and don't use power strips to power-down idle electronics. This will definitely be area of continual adjustments.

So, we are now a little over one month in to our year of rationing. What have we learned? Well, I learned that I need to be a better note-taker - that switch in blue/green ration points per week was a big shake-up.

We survived a family gathering for Sissy’s birthday that included feeding a group of 15 while staying within rationing limits. It took a bit of creativity and a whole lot of planning and saving weeks worth of sugar and red points items to pull of, but we did it.

Also, we've learned that all four of us were wrong. At the beginning of the year we all expected that the restrictions on eating out were where we would feel the most pain. Oh no, not that. It’s the restrictions on fresh produce that are rocking our world. I’m pretty sure the girls would be willing to trade a favorite toy for a bushel of picked-fresh apples and ripe bananas right now, and I've actually started dreaming of green, crisp salads full of fresh lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers.

Mind you, we have roughly 11 more months of this project ahead of us and many, many more challenges ahead. How will we manage vacations and trips to relatives with the reduce gasoline allowance? Can we survive the summer without air-conditioning, and should we commit to installing a whole-house (or attic) fan? And garden space - oh my! I always manage to have a nice productive vegetable garden, but boy - is the pressure on this year! Clearly, we’re going to need to expand our gardening efforts to include either community gardening or borrow space in a friends backyard in exchange for some of the produce (wink, wink).

We have a blog were we post updates, epiphanies and frustrations about rationing. At the beginning of our project year I stated quite plainly on the blog that I'm 100% certain that there will be moments of weakness and regret, but all the good adventures have those, right?

A year from now I imagine we’ll have a much better understanding of our wants and needs. We’ll have an idea of how our purchases fit into the larger world, and how, buy being conscious about those purchases, we can limit the unintended harm and maximize the positive potential of those purchases.

And maybe, just maybe, they’ll be four fat and happy hens perched inside our converted greenhouse.

Thank you.

--Rational Mama


  1. So, this talk has inspired some change at our house..... and (after last weeks craziness of preparing for the 414 show) a desire to read every word of the blog. (which I did today)

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Aww, thanks Bailey! And I'll be interested to hear what changes your making!

  3. Michelle, that's a wonderful commentary! I'm so glad to have come across your blog, even better that we're both UUs and not quite far neighbors (I'm in OP, KS). I've been captivated by your blog and hope to catch up the the current day soon. I've been thinking about something of this sort for a while, but your musings have given it more impetus.

  4. Glad you found us, Strega Lunae (great name!).

  5. Great talk, Michelle - lovely balance of information, history and good humour. :-)

    Coincidentally, I've been considering looking into our local UU congregation for some time. Interesting to learn that Chester Bowles was Unitarian too.