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The Struggle of the Home Front: Food Rationing During the Second World War

On this Remembrance Day, we will come together to remember those who fought in the many wars in which Canada has participated. While the prevailing narrative tends to remember those who returned and those who gave their lives in military service, the role of people on the home front has been de-emphasized, apart from the fact that they were the ones who were left behind to worry about their relatives who had enlisted and were sent overseas. People back in Canada wanted to feel like they were contributing to the war effort; one way that this was done was through food rationing.

The concept of rationing food was nothing new; during the First World War, the government created an entirely new bureaucratic department called the Canada Food Board, which was active from 1914 until 1920. The documents published by this branch of government worked to educate people about the benefits of reducing their own consumption of essential food items to send overseas to those fighting in Europe.

The same sort of strategy was implemented during the Second World War. The Wartime Prices and Trade Board was created on September 3rd, 1939, coming into effect the week before Canada officially declared war against Germany. They were the ones responsible for “regulating the price, supply and distribution of food, fuel, and other commodities.”[1] At first, people were encouraged to decrease their intake of certain foods (such as sugar, meat, or eggs).

As Canada was still a British Commonwealth country, much of the food that was produced in Canada was sent overseas to Great Britain to help feed their own citizens. Food historian Ian Mosby notes that by the end of the war, “Canadian exports accounted for 57 per cent of British wheat and flour consumption – down from its 1941 peak of 77 per cent – as well as 39 per cent of bacon, 15 per cent of eggs, 24 per cent of cheese, and 11 per cent of evaporated milk consumed in Britain.”[2] Thus, the need for sending food overseas became so great that the Wartime Prices and Trade Board had to introduce a more formal method of rationing food: by distributing ration books.

The first ration stamp books were sent out in August 1942; it was a tremendous undertaking, utilizing the efforts of eighty thousand volunteers filling out 12 million ration books by hand to 106 regional centers across Canada. People had to go to these ration distribution centers to get their groceries for the week. The weekly ration for a typical adult was as follows:

Sugar – One cup.

Tea – Two Ounces, or Coffee, 8 ounces.

Butter – four ounces, or one-quarter pound.

Meat – 24-32 ounces (less than five ounces of meat per day).

Figure 1: Ration book owned by May Sinclair, issued by the Wartime Prices and Trade Board, 1946.

The ration books were distributed to Canadian citizens on a regular basis, and were numbered from one to six, in this order:

· Ration book 1, issued August 1942.

· Ration book 2, issued in February 1943.

· Ration book 3 was given out in August 1943.

· Ration book 4 was printed in April 1944.

· Ration book 5 was distributed in October 1944.

· Ration book 6 was finally provided to Canadians in September 1946.

The ration food book, pictured here, belonged to May Sinclair of Mount Albert. Since hers is ration book number 6, we know that this is an example of a post-war ration book. The different stamps represent different foods that you could purchase with these coupons. For example, the B stamps were for butter, the M stamps were for meat, and the S stamps were for sugar.

Figure 2: Showing the interior of the ration stamp booklet.

If anyone has any wartime heirlooms (such as this one) they would like to share with us, please share them with us in the comments section below!

[1] Broad, Graham (2004). “Wartime Prices and Trade Board”. In The Oxford Companion to Canadian History. Ed. Gerald Hallowell. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Retrieved from [2] Mosby, Ian. (2022)“Food on the Home Front during the Second World War”. Wartime Canada.

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