The government has appointed a new “Food Supplies Minister” to oversee protection of British food supplies through our turbulent Brexit from the European Union. They’ve chosen David Rutley, who worked for various food companies – including PepsiCo and Asda – before becoming at politician, so at least he’s had experience of a proper job. It’s the first time we’ve had a minister purely for food since Lord Woolton was made Minister of Food in 1940.

Last year I read Eggs for Anarchy by William Sitwell, a biography of Lord Woolton focused around his years as Minister for Food. Although he was a staunch Conservative in later life, Frederick James Marquis wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth, and his early career was in social service. His health prevented him from being drafted to serve in World War I, and he went into retail, working for a department store chain. It was this logistics experience that suited him to become the man in charge of ensuring that the British people were fed when World War II interrupted food imports.

We have rather a cosy view of the Home Front and the Dig for Victory Campaigns, fed by endless government propaganda posters aimed at pulling the country together in a massive war effort. We think of people tirelessly and uncomplainingly ‘doing their bit’, but of course it wasn’t really like that.

Lord Woolton’s aim was to ensure an adequate food supply for everyone, which meant rationing of foods so that they could not be hoarded, and so that they remained affordable. We’re constantly told that the nation’s health was never better than during the rationing years, and it’s certainly true that Lord Woolton’s policies prevented the rich from over eating, whilst simultaneously providing the poor with a more nutritious diet than they would have had before the war.

Woolton then referred back to what was his natural territory. ‘Before the war, he said, there was no acute consciousness in this country of the fact that so many hundreds of thousands of people were suffering from malnutrition. It was not one of the subjects they read about daily in the newspapers – that there were, before this war broke out, very many thousands of children in the country who had not enough to eat.’

Although we are not at war, there are some obvious parallels to our current situation. Due to austerity measures and the massive inequalities in the British economy, there are hundreds of thousands of British children going hungry right now, the junior cohort of 8 million people living in food poverty. [The UK population in 2016 was 65.6 million people; in 1939 it was 46 million.]

Rationing was, of course, unpopular with the people whose diet it restricted, and there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that people felt hungry most of the time. The book explains that Winston Churchill was a thorn in Lord Woolton’s side, remaining unconvinced of the necessity of rationing, perhaps because the Prime Minister was unaffected by it. There were always second helpings for him, and whenever anything extra was required, his aides simply wrote to a junior at the Ministry of Food, who would oblige without bringing the matter to the Minister’s attention.

And although Lord Woolton successfully prevented the appearance of a large-scale black market, demand from consumers meant that the regulations were bent and circumvented at every step of the food chain, from farmers neglecting to report parts of their harvest, to under-the-counter transactions at the butchers for favoured customers. Despite this, Lord Woolton did manage to ensure that rationed items were available to everyone.

A wartime vegetable garden in London bomb crater

There are some insights into the Dig for Victory campaign, too. In the 1930s, Britain imported 70% of its food. The Dig for Victory campaign encouraged everyone to grow some food; together with the agricultural policies it raised production home production to 66% by the end of the war. [It’s currently 61%.]

Much of the work to produce all this veg was done by the 80,000 land girls of the Women’s Land Army, who, it later transpired, endured a miserable war. They lived on a diet of bread, butter and potatoes and suffered endless sexual harassment from some of the few male farm workers who hadn’t gone to war. The land girls’ work was supplemented by German and Italian prisoners of war.

So there’s a bit of a #MeToo moment there, as well, and some migrant labour….

And Lord Woolton managed to persuade Walt Disney to contribute 3 cartoon carrot characters to the British war effort, although they were overshadowed by the British ‘Doctor Carrot’.

His most enduring legacy may well be Woolton Pie, a recipe invented by Savoy maître-chef François Latry. It was intended to be a meal that ordinary housewives could recreate in their own homes. Churchill was not a fan; when he was served Woolton Pie he sent it back to the kitchen, with a request for beef instead. Lord Woolton reportedly became a little fed up with his namesake pie, which tended to be served to him wherever he went. As a vegetarian (easily vegan) recipe it may well find a home in modern Britain, although that pie crust won’t go down well with the low carb gang 🙂

Sitwell, W. (2016). Eggs or Anarchy: The remarkable story of the man tasked with the impossible: to feed a nation at war. Simon and Schuster.

[And if you’re worried about Brexit (or other upheavals) and thinking about growing some of your own food this year, check out my new zine – Keep Calm and Grow Food – which is available via Etsy.]