Friday, May 31, 2013

The Rationing Challenge

The Dollar Stretcher recently ran an interesting article on food rationing during World War II. It talked about the challenges of learning to make do with less of certain foods and speculated about how difficult it might be for Americans today to deal with the same kind of restrictions. This struck me as a much more interesting idea than the basic Food Stamp Challenge, in which people try to get by for a week on the same grocery budget they'd have on SNAP, the program formerly known as food stamps. NJ political superstar Corey Booker made headlines by doing one of these last year, and he said the hardest part for him was going without caffeine all week. However, when I contemplated taking this challenge back in 2011, I concluded that for me, the challenge would actually be a waste of money; in order to stick to a food-stamp budget for only one week, I'd have to abandon many of the money-saving strategies I normally use, like buying in bulk and stocking up. Trying to live under the rules of WWII-style rationing, by contrast, sounded like it might be interesting and even instructive.

Before I could decide whether to try it, though, I first had to figure out just what the exact rules were for rationing in this country. This proved to be a much harder question to answer than I had expected. I tried Googling phrases like "World War II rationing amounts" and "WWII rationing rules," and I kept getting pages that named the allotted amounts for some foodstuffs but not others. Every time I found a page with what I was looking for—a complete list of all rationed foods and the amounts allowed—it turned out to be about wartime Britain, rather than the United States.

After looking at lots of different sources, I finally figured out that the reason I couldn't find a site with a comprehensive list was that the rules for rationing in the United States were actually really complicated. For some foods, like sugar and coffee, you just got coupons entitling you to a set amount. However, most foods were distributed using a point-based system. Each household received two different coupon books, red and blue, each containing a number of stamps with different point values. Each foodstuff had two prices, one in dollars and one in ration points, and both prices fluctuated based on available supplies. If you think shopping on a budget today is complicated, just imagine trying to do it with two entirely separate budgets and two entirely separate prices for each item—all back in the days before pocket calculators, let alone smartphones.

Eventually, I found a reliable, comprehensive source: a middle school history lesson backed up by primary and secondary sources. Based on these sources, together with Wikipedia, I was able to put together the following list for a Rationing Challenge:
  • Sugar: limited to 1/2 pound per person per week. (This includes table sugar only; honey, molasses, and syrup were not rationed.)
  • Coffee: limited to 1 pound per person every 5 weeks.
  • Red stamp items (includes meat, cheese, and fats/oils): 16 points per person per week. Point costs for different items are shown on this chart. The chart does not include fish and poultry, which were not rationed.
  • Blue stamp items (includes canned and frozen fruits, vegetables, and juices): 48 points per person per week. Point prices for different items appear on the same chart.
Eggs, flour, and fresh milk were not rationed in this country, so a U.S. Rationing Challenge would be a lot less severe than the British version, which would impose limits of just three pints of milk and one egg per person per week. (According to the BBC, vegetarians could swap their meat coupons for other items, but it isn't clear how much you could get for them.) However, lots of nonfood items were rationed on this side of the pond, including shoes, tires, fuel oil, and gasoline. Gas rations varied depending on how "essential" your job was, but most families got just 3 to 4 gallons per week. In addition, a nationwide speed limit of 35 miles per hour was imposed—not to conserve fuel so much as tire rubber. I can't begin to imagine Americans putting up with that today, war or no war.

So, if I attempt this challenge, I think I should ration my use of gasoline as well as foodstuffs, just to get the full historical picture as accurately as possible. However, I do not intend to follow the 35-mile-per-hour speed limit, which would be counterproductive for today's cars (which get their best gas mileage at around 45 mph rather than 35) and unsafe on today's highways (which hadn't been built yet during WWII and which often have a required minimum speed of 45 mph). As for the restrictions on items like shoes and car tires, those wouldn't really apply for a one-week challenge, since those aren't items I would typically buy in any given week.

One difference between this and a Food Stamp Challenge is that it wouldn't require us to do all our shopping for the challenge week at once, eschewing all items already in our pantry and fridge. We could continue to use food we already have in the house, just as long as we didn't use more of it than our weekly ration stamps would allow. So we would not have to risk overspending on certain items just to stay within the limits of the challenge.

On the whole, I think this is worth a try. My plan is to do a little bit of number crunching over the weekend and start the challenge on Monday. This shouldn't interfere with my plans to attend the opening of the local farmers' market next Friday, as fresh produce was not rationed. In fact, since we already have our own little backyard garden planted, we can include eating from our own Victory Garden as part of the historical experience. (It may seem like cheating to do this challenge in summertime, when there's lots of fresh produce available, but I think it's actually more realistic than doing it in the winter, when there is still lots of fresh produce in the stores, but it's mostly imported from California or Mexico. Under those conditions, it would be much harder to figure out which items should be allowable, because I don't know how much fresh out-of-season produce was available in stores back in the '40s. If we do the challenge in June, we can realistically eat whatever's in season.)

So, assuming all goes according to plan, I will be posting throughout the next week to let you know how the challenge progresses.
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