Food Rationing on the World War II Home Front

Black and white photo. The soldier is white. Three C-Ration meals are shown. Main courses are served on china plates, with extras laid out in front.
A soldier at the Quartermaster Subsistence Research and Development Lab in Chicago samples a batch of C-Rations. Each C-Ration meal uses two 12oz cans: one for the main course and one for extras like chocolate, gum, biscuits, and cigarettes (Vergun 2019).

US Army photo, Signal Corps (VRIN: 410112-O-ZZ999-001).


Food is usually what we think of when we think of wartime rationing (though many other items were also rationed). Certainly, it affected every American every day, so perhaps that isn’t a surprise. There were several factors in why food was rationed during World War II, including supply and demand issues, military needs, and the economy.

While demand had been building in the years prior, when the US joined the war, demand for materials and supplies skyrocketed. Among these were the metals needed for tin cans. The military needed to be able to can foods for military rations – both for the US and for the other Allies. Also needed by the military in huge quantities were the ingredients that went into the rations. Meat, chocolate, coffee, Girl Scout cookies, and other foods either disappeared or were highly restricted from the consumer market.[1]

Coffee, cooking oils, and sugar was limited not just by their use to feed the military, but also because of the war itself. All shipments were limited by the transition of civilian cargo vessels to military transport use. In addition, shipments of coffee from Central and South America were disrupted by enemy submarine attacks.[2] As Japan captured places across the Pacific, they cut the US off from our main source of cooking oils.[3] In December 1941, Japan cut the US off entirely from its main sugar supply when they captured the Philippines. Sugar crops from elsewhere in the US (Hawai’i, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands) couldn’t make up the difference. Crops in these areas were lower due to poor weather, lack of fertilizer, and a shortage of agricultural labor.[4]

Across the US, agricultural workers were drafted into the military or moved from the farms to industrial centers to work. At the same time, the need for food was booming: America was both the arsenal and the bread basket of democracy.[5] The resulting shortage of labor risked the American food supply – for the military and for civilians. In response, the government formed the Crop Corps, the Women’s Land Army, and established the Bracero Program.[6] They also leased out prisoners of war as farm labor, gave work passes to incarcerated Japanese Americans, and encouraged civilians to plant Victory Gardens to provide their own produce. The result was that agricultural production in the US did not collapse during World War II, but there were still supply and demand issues for certain categories of foods.

Rationing was overseen by the federal Office of Price Administration (OPA), assisted by information from other wartime agencies. Using their nation-wide overview of supply, demand, and the economy, the OPA dictated which items to ration, set ceiling prices, and allocated available supply. These limits both ensured a fair distribution of goods, and helped to keep inflation in check. Rationing was managed at the local level by volunteer rationing boards. By the end of the war, over 100,000 citizen volunteers were managing the program organized into about 5,600 local boards.[7]

: Color illustration. A white shopkeeper wearing a white apron points to an OPA Ceiling Price List. A white woman wearing a blue jacket and hat is holding a can of produce and smiling at him. : Color illustration. A white shopkeeper wearing a white apron points to an OPA Ceiling Price List. A white woman wearing a blue jacket and hat is holding a can of produce and smiling at him.

Left image
“Let’s TEAM UP to keep food prices down – for the sake of America’s future.” Office of War Information, 1944.
Credit: Collection of the National Archives and Records Administration (NAID: 514887).

Right image
“We Are Severely Rationed… Therefore, We Are Forced to Ration You. We can serve  you only our allotment. We will not resort to Black Markets.” Sign from the S and W Cafeteria, Raleigh, NC, September 1943.
Credit: Collection of the State Archives of North Carolina (WWII 11_F1_P3).

Color illustration. 6 panels show how to use blue ration stamps to buy processed foods. All of the people shown are white.
“How to Shop With War Ration Book Two… to Buy Canned, Bottled and Frozen Fruits and Vegetables; Dried Fruits, Juices and all Canned Soups.” Office of Price Administration, February 1943.

Collection of the National Archives and Records Administration (NAID: 514549).

To buy rationed foods, shoppers had to produce the right ration stamps or coupons plus the monetary cost of the item (which was not to exceed the government-set ceiling prices). To control the rate of spending and discourage hoarding of products, ration coupons and stamps were only good for certain periods of time.[8]

Food was mostly rationed on the point system, since supply and demand shifted often, as foods came in and out of season (for example). Products with high demand and low availability needed more points than more readily-available goods. Coffee and sugar were available with their own coupons, since they were rationed at fairly stable amounts per person.

Throughout the war, the OPA added and removed things from the ration list as needed. They also adjusted point values, ceiling prices, and the amounts of coffee and sugar per person per month.[9]

Just because shoppers had coupons for rationed items and some items were not rationed did not guarantee they would be on the shelves at the grocery. Shortages also affected retailers, restaurants, hospitals, and manufacturers. They each had to navigate systems of food rationing. Across the country, some buyers and suppliers turned to the black market for products they wanted but could not get legally.

Open Transcript 


Speaker 1: Wartime America faces the greatest demand for food in our history. Food for our Army and Navy. Food for the invasion front. Food for ourselves on the home front. Food to help our fighting allies and the people of the allied countries. It takes pounds of food a day to keep a soldier on the fighting front. Millions of pounds of food each day. The best way to supply our men overseas and are fighting allies with most of the foods they need is in dried form and in cans. In addition to the military, other factors affect our canned food supply. Take tin, for example. Our major peacetime sources have been cut off by the enemy. Our railroads and other transportation facilities are being taxed to their utmost carrying munitions, armaments, war supplies and troops. That leaves less shipping space for civilian food stuffs. And then there's the farm labor shortage. All this means that we at home will have less canned fruits, vegetables, soups, and other processed foods for our use. Without rationing of these foods, some people would get more than their fair share. Others would not even get what they need. But rationing assures every one of his fair share. That is why your government is rationing canned fruits and vegetables and other processed foods. Until now, we have been rationing one item at a time like sugar and coffee. But processed fruits and vegetables are not one product. They are hundreds of products in hundreds of different brands, grade, sizes, varieties. In cans, bottles, packages, in dried and frozen form. One cannot say, as in the case of sugar, each citizen will be allowed two cans of peaches a week or four cans of spinach. It may be true that some people don't like spinach. Some of you may want to buy canned corn. Others of you may want to buy canned peas or spinach. So, the question arises, what method of rationing can be used so that each citizen may get his fair share of canned fruits and vegetables and other commercially packed foods, and that will still allow freedom of choice? The system which has been adopted and has worked successfully in England for over a year is called point rationing. In the point rationing system, all these foods are grouped together and your ration book is used to buy those you like. Those items which are not so scarce will take fewer points. Items which are more scarce will take more points. Point stamps to buy these ration goods are in War Ration Book Two. This book contains blue and red stamps. Blue stamps are to be used for canned fruits, vegetables, soups, juices, and other processed foods. Red stamps will be used for meat. This is a typical page of blue stamps in War Ration Book Two. Notice that the stamps are given point numbers: eight, five, two, one. Everyone will get 48 points each period. That means you'll use blue stamps A, B, C for the first period, D, E, F for the second and so forth. Point values will be the same in all stores. Every store in which you shop must post the official table of point values of all point rationed items in all sizes. From time to time, point values may change and stores will post the new point values. Here's an example of how point rationing works. This lady all decked out with her family's brand new ration books starts out to do some shopping. First of all, she wants to buy a can of peas [writes 8 on her list]. She wants to buy a can of chicken soup [writes 5 on her list]. And she wants some dried prunes [writes 1 on her list]. Well, there's our list complete, and all that remains to be done is to tear out 14 points in stamps and pay the grocer. But wait just a minute, just for fun, let's take another look at that point ration table. Hey, slow down there. What about those string beans? Why, they're only three points in the size we want. If we buy those instead of peas, we can save five points. And what's this? Fresh apples don't require any points. Well, why not buy those instead of dried prunes and save another point. So there we are, our shopping list complete, with the same amount of goods and with six points saved for future use. Smart girl. She's smart in more ways than one too, because she used her large stamps first, wisely saving her small ones for low point purchases later on, because she shops early in the day and so helps her grocer. Because wherever possible, she substitutes unrationed fresh fruits and vegetables for canned or processed ones. This is point rationing. This is the way to assure everyone here at home an equal opportunity to get the same fair share. This is the way to assure food for our fighting men and for are fighting allies. Share and share alike is the American way to victory.

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6 minutes, 16 seconds

A US Government-produced animated video about point rationing of foods during World War II.

Black and white photo of white men and women sitting at a table. Some are filling out forms. The table surface is covered with paperwork and ration stamps.
Signing up for sugar and food rationing in Taos, New Mexico. Photo by John Collier, Jr., Office of War Information, February 1943.

Collection of the Library of Congress (

A Confusing System

With its ever-changing list of what was being rationed, application processes, and varying categories of access, living with rationing could feel uncertain and confusing. But food rationing was especially challenging to navigate. Not only were most foods rationed using the points system, but there were also ceiling prices to navigate.

Ration Books

During the course of the war, there were five ration books printed, and four issued (Ration Book 5 was printed in 1945, but the war ended and it was not issued). Ration cards were also issued to Mexican nationals along the border who wanted to purchase food in the United States.[10]

Every food rationed on the point system was assigned a point value by the government. The number of points needed changed relatively frequently, based on supply, demand, region, and economic factors.[11] These changes were publicized in newspapers and on radio across the country.[12]

Ration Books & Tokens

Printed charts show point values for multiple food types, including canned and bottled, soups, baby food, frozen and dried foods, as well as multiple cuts and types of meats, fish, and fats and dairy. Old and new values are compared. Printed charts show point values for multiple food types, including canned and bottled, soups, baby food, frozen and dried foods, as well as multiple cuts and types of meats, fish, and fats and dairy. Old and new values are compared.

Top image
“Red And Blue Point Changes Due Sept. 5.” This published update shows the complexity of food rationing, and does not include ceiling prices. Pittsburgh Press, September 2, 1943.
Credit: Pittsburgh Press (1943) “Red And Blue Point Changes Due Sept. 5.” Pittsburgh Press September 2, 1943, p. 14.

Bottom image
Blue and red 1-point ration tokens introduced in 1944.
Credit: Collection of the author.

Black printing on off-white paper listing ceiling prices for 40 restaurant items. Prices range from 5 cents per cup of coffee, toast, or a doughnut to 40 cents for bacon and 2 eggs.
A ceiling price list for a restaurant in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Photo by Daderot, 2010.

Collection of the Soldiers and Sailors National Military Museum and Memorial, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Ceiling Prices

Ceiling prices were the maximum allowed to be charged for certain products. The OPA set top prices for meat, poultry, eggs, butter, milk, flour, cereals, bread, fats and oils, processed foods, bananas, sugar, coffee, dried fruits, packaged cheese, soaps and cleansers. These were published in local newspapers, and could change based on supply, demand, region, and economic factors – just like points. But there were also four categories of stores, categorized by volume of business.

Group 1 stores had the least volume; Group 4 had the most. Group 1 and 2 stores were permitted to charge higher ceiling prices than Group 3 and 4 stores, to allow for higher costs in doing business.[17] The continuous moving parts of point values and top prices for foods was a challenge for consumers, but also for businesses. Because both points and prices had to be labeled together, every time one changed, grocers had to re-label products.[18] And while people sometimes chose to dine out to save ration points, restaurants also had to operate under rationing restrictions, and to post their ceiling prices.

Red printing on cream paper. “This coupon authorizes the holder to whom it was issued to receive 3 pounds of sugar, which is to be used only to conserve foods as specified in the Regulations for the use of the person listed on the application.”
Sugar allowance coupon for home food processing, 3 pounds. Detail from a blank uncut sheet of 8 coupons that would have been issued to a local ration board for distribution. Office of Price Administration, 1942.

Collection of Duke University Libraries, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library (ark:/87924/r32j68f3s).

Rationed Foods

The categories of rationed foods during the war were sugar, coffee, processed foods (canned, frozen, etc.), meats and canned fish, and cheese, canned milk, and fats.


Sugar was rationed from May 1942 through June 1947--well after the war ended.[19] It was the first food rationed, and the last to be taken off the ration list. At the beginning of US joining World War II, each person was allotted 26 pounds of sugar per year (about 8 oz per week).

The amounts per person were calculated quarterly based on availability and need (military, consumer, and industry). In 1945, the per person ration for sugar went as low as 4.5oz per person per week.[20] People used alternatives to sweeten their foods, including maple syrup, corn syrup, and fruits. Those canning their own foods could apply for extra sugar.

Black and white advertisement featuring a drawing of a White House Coffee package.
Detail from an advertisement for White House Coffee. Note that they have changed their packaging from cans to a “triple-sealed, glassine-line economy package – Tin saving for Victory.” American Cookery December 1942, p. 184.

White House Coffee (1942) “A New England Family of Quality” (advertisement). American Cookery December 1942, p. 184.


Coffee was rationed from November 1942 to July 1943. [21] There were bumper crops of coffee in Central and South America at the start of the war. But U-boat attacks on cargo ships and the diversion of cargo capacity for the war meant that a lot of it wasn’t making it to the US.[22] The coffee that did arrive was prioritized for the military.[23]

At the end of November, 1942 the government began rationing coffee. Instead of issuing new ration stamps for coffee, the OPA designated certain stamps in Ration Book One (the “Sugar Book”) to be good for a pound of coffee every five weeks. That ration was soon reduced to one pound every six weeks.

People extended their coffee by using it to brew with multiple times, or with other non-rationed products like chicory. Leftover coffee was also saved to be reheated or used in recipes.[24]

Processed Foods

Processed foods were canned, frozen, dried, or otherwise pre-packaged. Over 300 processed foods were rationed, beginning in March 1943 and lasting through August 1945.[25] By rationing processed foods, scarce metals needed for tin cans and preserved foods were prioritized for military use.[26]

The blue stamps in Ration Books 2, 3, and 4 were used for processed foods. Each person was allocated 48 blue points per month, giving a family of four a total of 192 points for processed food.

Fresh fruits and vegetables were never rationed during World War II.[27] This, however, didn’t mean that the produce wanted was always available. And although not rationed, ceiling prices were established for fresh fruits and vegetables to help keep inflation down.[28]

Consumers could also grow and preserve their own produce in Victory Gardens to avoid spending ration points.

Illustrated poster with a red background. A cast iron pan is pouring yellow grease onto the behind of a white Nazi who is wearing a white uniform. He is yelling and holding his backside while running away.
“The Grease You Save… Will Burn T*** Off Hermann!” Office of War Information, 1943.

Collection of the National Archives and Records Administration (NAID: 514839).

Cheese, Canned Milk, and Fats

Cheese, canned milk and fats were rationed from March 1943 to November 1945.[29] It was important that the military got enough calcium in their diets. But shipping fluid milk was a problem.

Instead, cheese, butter, and canned milk (evaporated and condensed) were rationed. This ensured a supply of dairy for the military, and diverted more tin cans for the war effort. Fresh milk was not rationed during the war.[30]


Fats like oils, lard, and butter were also rationed. What little was available in the US was rationed to ensure the military had enough. Fats were not just used for food -- animal fats were also processed to make glycerin. It was a key ingredient to explosives like nitroglycerine, and was used to make bullets and bombs. Glycerin was also needed for war-critical pharmaceuticals, paint for tanks and planes, and for dyeing uniforms.[31]

Even with rationing, the military did not have enough glycerin. Civilians were encouraged to save their kitchen fats, which they could turn in to their butcher. In December 1943, those who turned in waste fats received 2 red ration points and 4 cents per pound.[32]

Red stamps in ration books were points used for meat, cheese, and fats. Each person got 64 red stamps per month, giving a family of four a total of 256 points. Lard was taken off the ration list in March 1944, and shortening and oils in April 1944. Butter and margarine were rationed through November 1945, with butter needing more points.

Recipe, combining 1 tsp. Knox Gelatine; 1 Tbsp. cold water; 1/4 lb butter or margarine; 1/4 tsp salt; 1/2 cup fresh or evaporated milk.
“Use KNOX Gelatine to STRETCH BUTTER – Recipe for Knox Spread. Make 1/2lb Spread with 1/4lb Butter.” Pittsburgh Press Dec. 9, 1943, p. 17. Pittsburgh is an American WWII Heritage City.

Knox (1943) “Use Knox Gelatine to Stretch Butter.” Pittsburgh Press December 9, 1943, p. 17.

To ensure margarine was not being sold as butter, it could not be colored yellow except by the consumer. Each pack of margarine was sold with a packet of yellow food coloring that the buyer would mix in.[33] Work-arounds included using peanut butter in baking to replace fats and stretching butter by whipping in other ingredients like honey or incorporating up to 50% of gelatin.[34]

Black and white photo of a white hand pointing to an entry on a sample point rationing table. Only part of the table shows. There are separate entries for beef steaks, roasts, and variety meats; lamb steaks and chops; veal steaks and roasts.
“Meat is rationed by the kind and cut as well as by the pound. Every kind and cut has its own point value.” Photo by Alfred T. Palmer, Office of War Information, March 1943.

: Collection of the Library of Congress (

Meats and Canned Fish

Meats and canned fish were rationed from March 1943 through November 1945.[35] The beginning of the canned fish ration began with a sudden halt to all sales to help prevent hoarding. Canned fish was needed by the military as a source of protein. In 1943, the military took 80% of canned sardines and mackerel and 60% of the canned salmon. Fresh fish was not rationed.[36]

Meat rationing was done by the cut and the pound. Every cut of most every kind of meat had its own point value plus a ceiling price. These were adjusted as availability and demand shifted.[37] Recipes abounded for how to stretch meat ration points including soups, stews, and casseroles instead of roasts and steaks. There was also a campaign promoting organ meats, rebranded as “variety meats.” Some civilians kept rabbits and chickens in their yards to provide meat and eggs, even though poultry and eggs were not rationed.[38]

Americans, however, loved their meat. Especially beef, which had some of the highest point values and ceiling prices throughout the war. The result was a thriving black market. It was the food that Americans were most willing to go to unpatriotic means to get.[39]

Black and white photo of a smiling white girl wearing a hat and coat, holding a package of Birdseye frozen food. She is standing in front of a display case full of Birdseye product. We see only the white mother’s hands and purse.
“Preparation for point rationing. While mother keeps handy her war ration book two, daughter examines the frozen foods which require removal of points stamps.” Photo by Alfred T. Palmer, Office of War Information, Feb. 1943.

Collection of the Library of Congress (

Making Do

Food rationing was a challenge for consumers and vendors. Magazines and newspapers published tips and recipes for “making do” that used less- or no rationed ingredients. This included meal planning and how to entertain guests.[40]

Example of a Daily Menu

Tomorrow’s Menu (Eat the Basic Seven Every Day)
BREAKFAST: Grapefruit juice, hot cereal, enriched toast with apple butter, coffee, milk.
LUNCHEON: Potato and vegetable pie, enriched hard rolls, butter or fortified margarine, sliced melon, tea, milk.
DINNER: Potato soup, beef and vegetable stew with biscuit top, buttered whole carrots, cabbage and celery salad, enriched bread, butter or fortified margarine, fresh fruit gelatin, coffee, milk.

As mentioned above, people also planted Victory Gardens and raised chickens, rabbits, and even cows to add variety to their meals and extend their ration points. The resulting produce and meats were used fresh or canned for later use. Dehydrating and freezing were also used for preservation, though not as commonly.

This article was written by Megan E. Springate, Assistant Research Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Maryland, for the NPS Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation and Education. It was funded by the National Council on Public History’s cooperative agreement with the National Park Service.

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Last updated: November 16, 2023