Survival in the Time of COVID

No rice. No pasta. No flour. No yeast. And yikes, no toilet paper!

COVID-19 has us all spooked and not just because we’re afraid we might end up intubated in our friendly neighbourhood ICU. No, we’re spooked because we’re afraid our friendly neighbourhood grocery store might run out of food. Shelves that are normally stocked with a plethora of choices are barren. Or down to the one and only brand we wouldn’t be caught dead buying. Until now.

Enter panic buying and hoarding.

We’ve become so accustomed to stores offering us goods from around the world that we think nothing of it. The problem is, that wealth of options is the result of a supply chain stretching around the globe, one that depends on a fragile web of interconnectedness. We have become dependent on those supply chains for everything, and it now threatens to break under the strain of the pandemic. We have lost our self-sufficiency, not only to grow but also to preserve our food. Now, we feel vulnerable.

What’s a shopper to do? We need only look at history to find potential answers.


My grandparents faced a similar dearth of options, not once but twice, during each of the World Wars. Governments decreed it necessary to send as much food as possible overseas to feed both Great Britain and the troops. Hoarding and profiteering were declared unpatriotic. Certain items – sugar, flour, eggs, butter and meat were strictly rationed. Even alcohol was rationed but provinces, not the federal government, set those amounts. Vegetables were about the only food group that wasn’t rationed. From 1939 to 1942, rationing was a voluntary action, but beginning in 1942 the Canadian government issued ration booklets to each person, 11 million in all.

World War II ration books. Left: Province of Saskatchewan Beer and Alcohol ration books (courtesy of Eastend Museum); Right: My grandparents’ ration books.

How much were people allowed? Could you manage on these WEEKLY (per person) allowances?

Sugar: one cup (the average Canadian eats twice that much today)
Tea: two ounces, OR Coffee: eight ounces. (because these items came from other countries)
Butter: four ounces
Meat: 24-32 ounces.

These restrictions led to some creative cooking. Eggs were replaced with vinegar and baking soda, or with applesauce. “Drippings” – the fat from frying bacon or cooking roasts (when available) – were saved and used for frying and baking. A “War Cake” used no eggs, butter or milk, and apparently tasted very good. Margarine, being a vegetable product, became widely used as a butter substitute. Potatoes, also widely available, when mashed would eke out the meager flour allotment to make pastry. And just in case you were at a loss for how to cope, the Government had scores of booklets to advise you.

Two items still with us became popular during the war – Kraft Dinner and Spam. Spam was a staple in soldiers’ ration kits who, it is rumoured, not only ate it but also used to it grease their rifles and boots! No one knows where the name “Spam” came from: short for “spiced ham,” or “an acronym for either “shoulders of pork and ham” or “Special Processed American Meat.” Take your pick. As for KD, well, a quick glance at the supermarket shelf tells how popular it still is.

One side-effect of rationing – the black market. If you knew the right people and had the money, you could still get whatever you wanted. Just don’t get caught because the penalties were high.

We may not like the idea of government-imposed rationing, but it’s one way to limit panic buying and ensure that everyone is able to buy what they need. Some stores are already imposing rationing of a sort by limiting the number of items you can buy of certain products.

Next: Survival in the Time of COVID, Part 2: Gardening

#COVID19 #Coronavirus #Rationing #FoodInsecurity #FoodHoarding #FoodSelfSufficiency #History #HannaFamilyHistory #HighamFamilyHistory #MargaretGHanna

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