Friday, 01 November 2019 "You wouldn't believe what you can do with a potato if you put your mind to it." | Claud Fullwood on her new book, The Rations Challenge

Blog | Author Interviews

Claud Fullwood, author of The Rations Challenge, talked to me about the benefits of conscious eating and the massive issue of a consumer culture in the 21st century. Her new book encourages us to consider more deeply the impact of our food, prompting us to ask questions of the ethics of our weekly shop. Placing the current crisis in the context of war-time rationing gives Claud a real clarity of voice as she guides us through small changes that make a significant difference.

Included in the book are several recipes that inspire some creativity in the kitchen even with the limited ingredients. 'Fadge' is a particular highlight: a breakfast potato fritter that should probably be in everybody's repertoire whether they're undertaking the challenge or not!

Claud also shares the words and wisdom of several interviewees, who each offer wonderful insight into the practiccal action we can take in the 21st century. From Yolande, who lives on a vegan, carbon-neutral smallholding and makes her own toiletries, to Peggy, who worked the fields as part of the Land Army during WWII.

Firstly, why war rationing? Is there something about the wartime experience or culture that encouraged you to take on such a drastic challenge?

“At the time I originally did the challenge, I was raising money and awareness around global hunger. I’m quite fascinated by that period in British History anyway (and who doesn’t love a good Victory roll!), but it struck me that that was the last time we as a country faced real, sustained food shortages. I wanted to do something which would be relatable, which would bring home the reality of food shortages and hunger to people who don’t usually experience them - including myself.

“Rations were the safety net - that’s something many people here and overseas simply don’t have now.”

“In addition, the rations system gave me a good framework to cook and plan within. It also allowed me to explore so many issues, such as imported vs local food, global food systems, and how and where food is grown - all of which are extremely relevant today. These issues naturally grew out of the rations challenge because they were issues facing Britain, as an island, at that time.

“Finally, I decided to do war rationing, quite simply because it worked. War rations were boring, repetitive and quite miserable at times but they were also nutritious and adequate. By 1943 almost nothing was getting through to the UK from outside. We were totally reliant on our own food supply. And yet we survived a six year war, when the Nazis had thought we would be starved out in six months. And it was ordinary people who made this happen! Land girls, the Women’s Institute, pig clubs and digging for victory. I’m not so naive that I think it’s the shiny, happy affair of the propaganda posters, but talking to people who lived through rations, and also just seeing the evidence of how we survived - I knew there was a goldmine of lessons worth learning from that period.

“It’s worth noting though, that living on rations is nowhere near as harsh as what people experiencing real hunger, famine or poverty go through. Rations were the safety net - that’s something many people here and overseas simply don’t have now.”

What new habits or practises did you pick up from this 40 day journey? How did the experience affect your relationship with food, people, and the environment?

“I was brought up in a house that never wasted food. But I think by the time I did this challenge I had lost my way a bit. The rations challenge taught me not to waste a scrap, and actively look for ways not to. I became much more aware of where my food was coming from, what’s seasonal, what’s local. The journey absolutely opened my eyes to the hunger and waste around the world too. What we take for granted, other people never even get. That isn’t right. I think this challenge made me more grateful for what I have and also more committed to activism to halt global hunger and inequality.

“I think the other thing that really hit home for me was the whole chain of people involved in putting food on my table. When I began researching food systems, I was very humbled by coming face to face with the reality of food production, and how poor many of the people who produce our food are. I definitely check where our food is coming from and make as many positive decisions as I can when buying.

“I was also really inspired by the people I interviewed for the book. I was honoured to hear their stories and be allowed to record them. They were very different from each other and had so much to teach me. But the one thing they all had in common was this amazing philosophy. You work hard and you don’t expect anything to be handed to you. You use what you have, don’t waste and tread lightly on the earth. I’m not talking about not helping people who need help or support, but those of us who are able to look after ourselves should do as much as we can to help ourselves and our neighbours. And all of us need to separate out what we want from what we need. I think that ethic is what brought us through the war.

“I could see some of the older people I talked to were just totally appalled and nonplussed by the waste and throwaway nature of society now. Right now, when we’re dealing with a massive climate crisis and massive levels of hunger and foodbank use at home, it is astounding how much we still waste globally. The number of plastic bottles we chuck out; the single use everything; the perfectly good food that goes into landfill. But the systems in place make it harder to avoid this. Everything we buy, what it’s wrapped in, where we work, what we earn, what things cost - all of this is in the context of a system that’s broken. We need to change the system to something simpler, more wholesome, less consumer-based.

“One big change we made was growing our own veg, and where we can’t, we buy it loose from a local market. We take our own bags and get what we need. But not everyone has a good loose veg stand near them and not everyone - including my family - can shop in organic farmer’s markets all the time. Often cheaper produce comes in large quantities and you can end up wasting it. We were throwing a lot out so we decided to share our shop. It’s worth finding a shopping buddy you can go halves on large quantity items with to save money and waste. Maybe this is the ‘pig club’ of the 21st century!

“Obviously I don’t live on wartime rations all the time, but there are some things that have been hugely useful in balancing a budget and feeding my family. I think at first rations are very boring but in the long run they’ve made me more inventive and creative in the kitchen. You wouldn’t believe how many things you can do with a potato if you put your mind to it...”

What do you hope others will gain from taking on the challenge themselves?

“I like to think there’s something for everyone in this book! I hope people will feel more connected, to their food and to each other, both globally and locally. I would love it if the book encouraged even one person to take action, sign a petition, or change the way they shopped. At the end of the war there were a million allotments in Britain. Wouldn’t it be great if we could start planting and growing and cutting food miles like that again? The knock-on positive effects would be massive.

“But also I hope people can use the book to carve out a little bit of time to reflect and become more mindful. We live in a world that moves so fast, it’s so easy to become carried on a big wave of grab-bag consumerism and just not see what we have. I hope it encourages people just to smile and pause and see each other and see the abundance that still exists when all the excess is stripped away. I love the quote from the theologian Eckhart von Hochheim: 'If the only prayer you ever said was thank you, that would be enough.'”

The Rations Challenge shows us that its possible to break away from living in excess and falling into a consumer culture. Claud also highlights the many benefits that stripping things back has: globally, locally and personally.

To read the book and learn more click here.