Friday, October 15, 2010

Dropping the Ball

It's been one week since we prematurely ended the U.K. ration portion of our experiment. I've been doing a lot of soul searching since then.

Don't worry; we're still following our U.S. rationing guidelines. It was very easy to fall back into that groove: red points, blue points, etc.

But it feels different this time.

You see, living on U.K. rations was nothing less than hard: each day I had to carefully manage our limited supplies - what fat was available, what would do for breakfasts, and what pantry items were of adequate supply to provide enough dinner for four. The girls were hungry; we were all hungry.

I imagine that, historically, the hardship might have been more manageable if the entire country could commiserate with the shortages and make-do recipes and the hunger (in-between air raids, that is).

But in the U.S. things were different. Sure, there were shortages and occasional items were missing from the shelves. But what has become apparent from this (now over nine month) experience is that U.S. rations during WWII were generous compared to our own Allies across the pond. There was enough that the U.S. could help supplement British diets with exports of canned meat, fruit and vegetables. This was because U.S. food production (both private and commercial) skyrocketed during the War. Between Victory Gardens and factories running 24/7 the availability and variety of foods in America during the War made the grocery store shelves in the U.S. look like technicolor versions of heaven to the impoverished abroad.

And at least during this part of the War Americans had their heads and hearts in the right place: in a 1943 poll 62% of American respondents thought that continued rationing after the War would be necessary for a year or two to better control shortages and continue supplying war-torn nations with much needed food. By 1944 that number had risen to 85%; images of starving children in Europe and Asia were finding their way into U.S. media and it was hard to argue with such evidence. In 1945 individuals in Tokyo were getting only half of their official ration allowances (520 calories a day); at the same time over 70% of Americans thought it in the country's best interest to help overseas after the War.

And then something happened: the War actually ended.

As of August 15, 1945 (the day after V-J Day), rationing in the U.S. was over. History. Tired of the cumulative deprivation that was the Great Depression and WWII, Americans were happy to once again experience a lifestyle of abundance and leisure.

By March of 1946 only 59% of Americans favorite a return to rationing in order to send food to the needy in other nations (and that number dropped even further if the receiving nation was in Asia). Persuaded by the manufacturing and farm lobbyists, most Americans began to believe that advances in science and technology would be the way to rescue the international community out of poverty.

Granted, there was a group of citizens and activists that were not happy with this complacency towards the hungry. Pressure from voters and cabinet members lead President Truman to hastily create the Famine Emergency Committee in the spring of 1946. The FEC emphasized the notion that no other country, aside from Canada, could provide the food needed to rescue the rest of the world from starvation. To accomplish this they recommended that Americans return to rationing. When it became clear that neither industry nor the government was interested that option, the FEC recommended that Americans reduce their wheat consumption by 40% and their usage of fats/oils by 20%.

The response was underwhelming. In a 1947 Gallup Poll only 22% said they followed the government's suggestion of meatless Tuesdays (although 38% said they were planning to follow it). Roughly 29% of respondents replied that eating no meat on Tuesdays was "too difficult." Meanwhile, photos of the food wastage transpiring in the U.S. did little to gain sympathy from world communities that were continuing to suffer from drought conditions and the effects of war.

I know what you (the Americans) are thinking: what about the Marshall Plan? We all learned about the wonders of the Marshall Plan in our high school history classes; how it helped build up Europe after the War and created an efficient, sustainable infrastructure. But do you remember that the Marshall Plan wasn't enacted until 1948 - a full three years after WWII ended? And that only 29% of the multi-billion dollar program went to supply food, feed and fertilizers? The rest was spent on factories, buildings, and roads. And since food supplies were tied with politics, the amount of aid sent to Asian countries during this time period was but a small sliver of the amount sent to Europe.

So what am I trying to say? I'm saying that the U.S. blew it. Dropped the ball 100%. We had the chance to raise millions of lives out of poverty (and even prevent innocent deaths), but in the end we chose a nice steak dinner and chocolate cake rather than subject ourselves to modest, manageable rationing program.

And in reality, things really aren't that different today. The U.S., along with Canada, has the fields, the factories and the transportation needed to provide poverty relief both locally and around the globe.

So when this modern mother had to listen to her children's' repeated requests for food because they were genuinely hungry (and not just bored), it was a wake up call. What was a choice for me (living on restricted rations) is someone else's reality. Today.

According to the World Health Organization, approximately one-third of the world is well fed, one-third of the world is underfed, and one-third of the world is starving. Today.

Meanwhile, incidents of childhood and adult obesity in the U.S. are skyrocketing.

The system is broken. I'm not saying that it's an easy fix, or that it will ever be perfect. But something has to be done - locally and internationally.

And you know what? I'm not going to be the one to drop the ball this time.

--Rational Mama


  1. I forgot to mention that most of the polling information in this post came from Amy Bentley's book, "Eating for Victory: Food Rationing and the Politics of Domesticity."

  2. You're being unfair on yourselves as Americans and on America as a whole. There's no doubt about it: the USA saved our butts here in Europe twice.

    Without you, the UK would probably have survived - Hitler would still have stupidly attacked the USSR in winter and FDR's Lend-Lease would have kept us going - but the war of attrition would have gone on, 1984-style, into the 1950s. The rest of Europe would have been under the Nazi yoke into the 1980s. The fall of the Berlin Wall would have actually been the fall of the European Nazi regime.

    And without your loan to us in 1946-47, not only would the UK not have seen the end of endemic poverty and ill-health, we'd have starved that winter. The terms weren't generous, but it was a lifebelt to a drowning person. And Marshall Aid: without it, western Europe would have freely voted for Communist candidates in the late 1940s.

    The USA was doing this for selfish reasons as well as selfless ones, but that's just human behaviour. The USA extracted a price from us it wouldn't pay itself, but that's also just humans being humans.

    All in all, without the US making sacrifices where it didn't *have* to, without the US sharing at least some of what it had with those who could offer nothing back, without the US *also* thinking about us if not *only* thinking about us, we in the EU wouldn't be here.

    So: thank you. You have reason to be proud to be American.

  3. Well, said Michelle. Excellent point.

  4. Interesting! I learn so much from reading your blog :) Thank you!

  5. I find it very interesting that the first two (not me) posts come from European backgrounds: one from the UK view vantage and one from a background behind the Iron Curtain. And they are two very different responses. Discuss. ;)