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Recipe for Reform: The Food Economy Movement in Britain During the First World War


This dissertation is about the movement for food reform in Great Britain before and during the First World War. At the turn of the twentieth century, Britain depended on overseas trade for approximately half of its food. Simultaneously, a large proportion of the working class suffered from endemic undernutrition according to contemporary dietary standards. In the light of increasing economic and military competition around the globe, food insecurity became a potent moral and political problem in Britain. Before the war, food reformers addressed endemic hunger itself along traditionally liberal lines by attempting to educate the public in economical catering and cooking. Meanwhile, Joseph Chamberlain's tariff reform campaign failed due in part to the prospect of higher food prices. The Liberal government that took office in 1906 had campaigned on a platform of free food and did little to address the dependence on imports. As a result, Britain had few public institutions for producing, storing, or distributing food in 1914. To address the shortages that came with the First World War, Britain had few other choices but to fall back on the prewar reform program of food economy. However, the war inspired a spirit of cooperation and solidarity that forced food reformers, both in and out of the government, to overcome their class biases and reach out to the poor and the rich alike. The food economy campaign also boosted women into active citizenship as so-called quartermasters of the kitchen with a vital role in prosecuting the war. The surviving evidence suggests that many Britons sympathized with food economy, but hesitated actually to change their diets to meet its requirements. Ultimately, voluntary economy gave way to compulsory rationing as the solution to the wartime food crisis. Despite its practical failures, food economy revealed the staying power of traditional British individualism and liberalism and recast women and their traditional domestic role as relevant to national prosperity and security.

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