Meat Rationing on the World War II Home Front

Graphic image of a white grocer wearing a red tie and white jacket pointing to a poster of a white woman with her right hand raised. She is pledging to pay no more than ceiling prices and to accept no rationed goods without giving up ration points. Graphic image of a white grocer wearing a red tie and white jacket pointing to a poster of a white woman with her right hand raised. She is pledging to pay no more than ceiling prices and to accept no rationed goods without giving up ration points.

Left image
“We Are Cooperating with the 15,000,000 Women Who Are Keeping the Home Front Pledge.” Office of Price Administration, 1944.
Credit: Collection of the National Archives and Records Administration (NAID: 516060).

Right image
“Meatless fare for Tuesday airline passengers from LaGuardia Field is sampled by Goldie Astleford, hostess on the New York to Kansas City run. They don’t have meatless Tuesdays in KC.” (1943)
Credit: Sunday News (Daily News) (New York City), January 31 1943, p. 85.

Meat was on the ration list from March 1943 through November 1945.[1] Red stamps from Ration Book Two onward were used to buy meat, as well as cheese and fats (blue stamps were for processed foods – which included canned meat like corned beef). Meat was rationed by the type of meat, the cut, and by weight (but not the quality), with points assessed by the pound. Ceiling prices were also set for meats.[2]

To cut back on meat consumption, New York City Mayor LaGuardia instituted Meatless Tuesdays across the city. It caused confusion about what counted as meat -- and was very unpopular with hot dog makers, among others. Other places followed suit.[3] But Americans loved their beef – especially steaks. Many did not give them up, even though a single steak could use half a month’s worth of points. When entertaining, it was common for guests to bring their own steaks for grilling, while the host provided the rest of the meal.[4]

Black and white photo of a white man wearing a leather jacket, tie, and cap with a pipe in his mouth.
“Introducing Ray Sprigle, Black Marketer” (1945). Ray Sprigle, an investigative reporter, posing as Alois Vondich, hoists a side of meat over his shoulder. Pittsburgh, PA is an American World War II Heritage City.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 13, 1945, p. 5.

Black Market Meat

Red meat – especially beef -- was so ingrained in American culture that it drew otherwise patriotic people to the black market.[5] To discourage this, the government promoted the “Home Front Pledge” to shopkeepers and citizens.[6] In 1944, the Office of Price Administration estimated that as much as 17% of the nation’s meat trade was via the black market. The press called it “meatlegging,” conjuring Prohibition-era bootlegging in illicit alcohol.[7]

In 1945, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Ray Sprigle posed as Alois Vondich, a black market buyer for meat. In only three weeks during his investigative reporting, he was able to buy over 2,000 pounds of meat and several pounds of butter.[8] He also secured 10,000 ration stamps for $60 (about $1,000 in 2023). These may have been stolen or some of the counterfeits entering Pittsburgh from New York City and Chicago where they were being printed.[9]

Black and white logo at the top of an advertisement that includes foods for Lent (“Not Rationed! Buy all you need!”)
“First Aid For Your Ration Budget” (1943). Detail of an advertisement for IGA stores. Wichita, Kansas is an American World War II Heritage City.

Wichita Evening Eagle, March 18, 1943, p. 10.


Fresh poultry and eggs were not rationed (unless canned), and Americans ate increasing amounts of chicken. Some even raised chickens in their yards. People with access to large amounts of meat (like one woman who bought a cow with friends) also preserved meat by canning it (canning meat in fats is called potting).[10]

Women's magazines and newspapers published tips and recipes about how to stretch meat. These included using small amounts to add flavor in stews, soups, and casseroles. Articles and recipes also promoted using types and cuts of meat that people were unfamiliar with or were less popular. Lamb, pork, veal, ground meats, and “variety meats” were all lower point values than cuts of beef.[11]

Black and white ad template describing the nutritional value of organ meats. Image showing heart, kidneys, liver, tongue and other organ meats on a tray.
“Meet These V-Meats.” Before meat was rationed, people were encouraged to eat organ meats that would not count against their daily “sharing allowance.” Office of War Information, c. 1943.

National Archives and Records Administration (NAID: 515961).

Recipe: Emergency Steak

1 cup flaked wheat cereal
1/3 cup milk
2 tablespoons very finely chopped onion
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 pound ground beef

Combine cereal, milk, onion, salt, and pepper in a medium bowl; set aside 5 minutes. Preheat broiler. Grease center of shallow roasting pan. Stir ground beef into cereal mixture and place on the greased roasting pan. Pat into the shape of a T-bone steak. Broil 6 inches from heat source until browned — about 5 minutes. Turn and broil on other side until cooked through — 5 to 10 minutes longer.[12]

The Story of Variety Meats

"Variety Meats." Among the biggest challenges was getting people to use different sources of meat.[13] Organ meats were not of use to the military (soldiers wouldn’t eat them), and so there was a lot available for the civilian market. In 1940, as part of the buildup to the war, the National Research Council began a study on the food habits of the American public. The goal was to understand them, so that they could be changed to support the war. Special efforts were made to reach the whole population of the US, including African Americans, Central Europeans, and Italian Americans. The study was led by anthropologist Margaret Mead and psychologist Kurt Lewin.[14]

Examples of point differences (per pound): Steaks range from 9 points (Chuck) to 13 points (Round and Top Roast); Variety Meats range from 1 point (Brains, Tails) to 6 points (Liver, Tongue).
Detail from an article describing point changes from September 1943. It shows the difference in points between more familiar cuts of beef and organ meats.

Pittsburgh Press, September 2, 1943, p. 14.

At the time, people with means considered organ meats (hearts, livers, brains, kidneys, etc.) “poor people food” and the people who ate them unsophisticated and of low social status. Patriotism would not be enough to get people to switch to organ meats. Mead and Lewin focused on why people weren’t eating organ meats. One finding was that they were not comfortable trying new things. They didn’t know what organ meats tasted like, or how to cook them. So they recommended that preparation tips and recipes be made available. And that they encourage people just to try it – once a week, say, for “variety.” The name stuck, and organ meats were marketed as “variety meats.”[15]

While not unrationed, the point values (and cost) of variety meats were significantly lower than other meat, especially premium cuts. Points for variety meats could be as low as 1 per pound.[16] Publications touted their value, communities held special cooking classes, and people swapped recipes. Slowly, the stigma of variety meats lessened. Their association shifted from “poor people’s food” to food that patriots ate. Or at least, that’s how people talked about it – complaining about them was unpatriotic.[17]

Black and white photo of a large cooked and stuffed heart plated on what looks like peas and julienned carrots.
“Baked Stuffed Heart.” A photo accompanying several recipes using organ meats.

Wichita Evening Eagle, March 18, 1943, p. 10.

Recipe: Heart Loaf

Yield: 6 servings. Cooking time: 45 minutes.

The first step in preparing heart is to trim out the fibers, then wash thoroughly in cold water. Beef heart weighs three to four pounds, calf one to two pounds, port one-half to one pound, and lamb one-quarter to one-half pound. Any kind of heart can be used.

1-1/2 cups ground raw heart
1 onion
1 small carrot
1/4 cup cracker crumbs
Dash of pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 egg
1/4 cup ketchup
2 tablespoons diced green pepper

Grind onion and carrot. Combine all ingredients and place in a one-pound loaf pan. Bake in a moderate oven (325F) 45-50 minutes. May be served with a tomato or brown sauce.[18]

Unlike other World War II foods, organ meats didn’t “stick” in the American diet. – except perhaps liver and onions. Part of the issue is that food habits change slowly, as a rule. When the war ended, steaks and other desirable meats became widely available again. The government didn’t help, either. All the posters and educational materials about meat rationing featured steaks, roasts, and chops, keeping them (and not organ meats) forefront.[19]

The End of Meat Rationing

For a period of seven months, from May to December 1944, most meats came off ration. There was a good supply, and only choice cuts of beef (including steak) remained rationed.[20] It didn’t last. As the Allies liberated countries overseas, the United States stepped in to help feed their citizens until they could get back on their feet. This included sending meat, and all meats were rationed again beginning December 31, 1944. Despite rationing, a severe meat shortage hit the market in the spring and summer months of 1945. Even poultry and eggs were scarce. Supply improved into the fall, and meat rationing ended on November 23, 1945.[21]

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