Imperial War Museums tells the stories of ordinary people whose lives have been affected by war and conflict. This resource looks at the experience of rationing through the personal memories of Graham who was 9 years old when the Second World War started. Graham was not evacuated, he stayed at home where his mother did her best to create healthy and nutritious meals ‘on the ration’.
Discuss with the students their reaction to Graham’s interview. What stood out for them? What surprised them? What did they learn that they did not know before?
One of the most surprising aspects of rationing in the Second World War is the discovery that so many items of food are imported, leading to shortages of food due to disrupted supply chains.
To relate this to today, pupils could carry out a survey of food items in their cupboards at home. They could note down the countries of origin of a few different foods and plot their origins on a global map. This could also lead to an investigation into seasonality. Graham talks about the season when plums were readily available.
On a visit to the shops, market or as an online exercise pupils could try to work out what fruits and vegetables are available in Britain at the time of year that this resource is being used. This investigation could be extended by taking a closer look at the array of fruits and vegetables that are available to buy.
This will illustrate the wealth of choice that there is and how seasonality is more obscure. Today’s availability of fresh fruit and vegetables could be contrasted with the experiences of children in the Second World War, for example Graham did not see, let alone eat either a banana or an orange for six years.
Pupils could investigate the types of food that were rationed and how much of each food an adult or child would be allowed. Alongside this they should also investigate which types of food were not rationed and research ways that families could supplement their diets.
Growing vegetables was one way that people in the Second World War topped up their rations, students could carry out a practical ‘Dig for Victory’ experiment by growing vegetables within the school grounds, seed potatoes will grow in a large bucket if space is at a premium, or students could grow cress or lettuce inside the classroom if outdoor space is not available.
A visit to a farm, allotment or city farm project could be arranged to learn about how plants grow and where food comes from.
Graham mentions the ingenious ways that his mother used potatoes – which were never rationed – to make nutritious and filling meals.
The Ministry of Food ran a campaign encouraging families to grow and eat potatoes using a character called Potato Pete. Along with Dr Carrot, the message these two jolly characters shared focused on the health benefits of vegetables and their versatility, carrots were even promoted as a reasonable substitute for sweets!
Potato Pete and Dr Carrot appeared on posters, in newspapers and in ‘food flashes’ on the radio. Students could investigate examples of all of these, (links to Food Flashes are part of the ‘Explore More’ links in this resource), and create their own character and think of slogans and messages that their character would say to promote their chosen food.
Using the allocation of rationed food for a single week students could plan a menu for a family of three (the size of Graham’s wartime family!) Pupils could be encouraged to think about how leftovers could form the basis of another meal, such as vegetable scraps being great for a soup.
This could be extended to cooking a wartime recipe if there are the facilities at school.
As an extension activity for the Meal Planning activity: In science students could think about calories as a unit of measurement – but not like those they may be familiar with such as length or weight- but as a measurement of energy. Students could investigate some familiar foods and their calorie content and therefore the energy that their bodies would receive by consuming it.
Would these foods have been available on the ration? How would they get their required(energy) intake from the foods available in the Second World War? Students could investigate answers to these questions using the examples that Graham describes, and what they have learnt about foods that were readily available in the Second World War and those that were restricted.
While recognising that students come in all sizes and shapes and will all burn calories at different rates, could they plan a day’s menu to provide 2,000 calories for a day.*
*Roughly the recommended amount for 11 year old children given by the NHS
Combining the knowledge which students have gained by completing the above activities, students could be shown research that shows that far from being a starvation diet rationing, by limiting the consumption of certain foods like sugars and fats, was a healthy diet.
Students could research arguments for and against reintroducing rationing and hold a debate to explore these ideas with votes taken at the conclusion of all their presented arguments.
As part of their research, difficult questions, such as whether modern health problems, like obesity, could be tackled by an introduction of rationing, could be explored with examples like the sugar tax. Such interventions can be debated to explore the pros and cons for each.
Students could explore other examples of shortages in the Second World War and find evidence of re-use and ‘making do and mend’. Students could be encouraged to make connections to strategies to tackle the climate crisis today.
For example, paper was in short supply throughout the long years of the war, with orders to shops to reduce paper consumption to 30% of their pre-war usage, pupils may think that recycling is a modern invention but waste paper was pulped and re-pulped throughout the war, becoming greyer with each cycle!
Even soap was rationed from February 1942 at an allowance of 3oz per person, every 4 weeks. In numeracy students could weigh examples of rationed items to convert 3oz of soap into metric and get a visual idea of what that weight would look like; loose-leaf tea and butter are particularly suitable for this as well.