Food ration card for one person, January 1944.
Food ration card for one person, January 1944. Swiss National Museum

Food rationing in Switzerland

During World War II, you needed coupons to buy milk, coffee and sugar. A story from the non-digital world…

Bernard Degen

Bernard Degen

Bernard Degen is a researcher in the Department of History at the University of Basel.

For nearly a decade from the late 1930s onwards, food ration cards were among the most essential documents for adults living in Switzerland. From the end of October 1939 until summer 1948 only this authorisation, printed on thick paper, provided access to staple foodstuffs. To make it more difficult to forge the coupons, they were printed on special ration card paper produced under controlled manufacture. The cards contained a number of coupons in the format 21 x 12.5 millimetres, which could be detached individually; as time went by, the number of coupons increased and became more differentiated. The coupons didn’t provide direct access to food – they only conferred the right to buy it.
Food coupons from November 1945.
Food coupons from November 1945. Swiss National Museum
Towards the end of the war the housewife, who as the person in charge of coping with the economy of scarcity was the main recipient of these cards, needed to be running a small administrative department in order to keep track of things. A railway worker’s family with a working wife and two teenagers over the age of 16 received 22 food ration cards a month from the federal government when the rationing programme was at its full extent. There were also government ration cards for other goods and, depending on region, additional cards as well. Nationwide, a total of up to 700 million consumer coupons had to be processed every month. Figures responsible for the wartime economy, such as Alfred Fleisch (1892-1973), President of the Eidgenössischen Kommission für Kriegsernährung (EKKE, the Federal Commission for Wartime Nutrition), drew a firm distinction between the outcome of their activities and the conditions during World War I. In 1947 Fleisch noted: ‘In this war, the EKKE was always at pains to avoid a development similar to that in 1918, and it did so with great success.’
A housewife buys food during World War II, photographed in 1943.
A housewife buys food during World War II, photographed in 1943. Keystone / Photopress-Archiv / STR
Although members of the conservative civil society tended to portray the national strike as a product of Bolshevik agitation, many politicians were aware that an economic and socio-political debacle as in World War I must not be allowed to happen again. The Eidgenössische Volkswirtschaftsdepartement (EVD, the Federal Department of Economic Affairs) made an early start on the task of organising a war economy. The Federal Law on securing the national supply of essential goods (Sicherstellungsgesetz) came into force in summer 1938, and gave the Federal Council powers to carry out checks, bring in rules regarding warehousing (compulsory stockpiling of essential materials), confiscations and expropriations, and allow it to order that additional crops be grown. At the end of 1938 the machinery was ready for operation, with no broader public discussion having taken place. The scarce supplies of food were distributed according to the principles of quota-setting and rationing, with the former remaining of secondary relevance for private households. Establishing the ration amounts was based on two aspects: the available food supplies, and the physiological nutritional requirement.
In an initial phase, the available food supplies were monitored on a continuous basis. It was then calculated how much of each foodstuff could be given to each person per month. The ration was itemised on the coupons of the food ration cards. The coupons moved in counterflow to the goods, from the retailer to the bulk dealer, and then to the producer or importer, where a final check showed whether the coupons tallied with the goods delivered. The food ration cards were distributed to end consumers via the municipal offices for war economy. Many people initially had the cards delivered by post but when registered letters, and therefore higher subscription fees, became necessary, postal delivery declined.
An envelope for ration cards for textile products, sugar, shoes…
An envelope for ration cards for textile products, sugar, shoes… Swiss National Museum
As the war progressed and diet started to be more strongly influenced by rationing, and the rise in prices had reached a significant level, it became evident that substantial quantities of the coupons were not being redeemed. The social theory that many people didn’t have the money to use their coupons gained traction. One solution was the B card, which contained more coupons for bread, milk and cheese instead of the expensive meat, and could be obtained in place of the normal food ration card – now called the A card. It was popular especially with large families, vegetarians, those who lived alone and families on a low income. From 1943, the target 2,160 calories per day considered necessary for adults could only be achieved in a small number of months. The lowest point was reached in the post-war period, because the supply chains couldn’t be restored immediately. The situation improved significantly from autumn 1945, although in 1946 and 1947 several months still fell short of the 2,160-calorie target. More and more goods were released from rationing, with the last of the foodstuffs finally losing their rationed status in July 1948. However, some items remained subject to quotas until August 1949.
Food ration card for the purchase of flour and fat, July 1948.
Food ration card for the purchase of flour and fat, July 1948. Swiss National Museum
During World War II food supply was not left at the mercy of the free play of market forces, as it had been in World War I. Even less well-off levels of society were given access to as adequate a diet as was possible. Although this diet was strongly influenced by the availability of food supplies, it was put together with due consideration of scientific insights. So despite all the oft-criticised shortcomings of the system, the impression created was of a certain fairness, an impression which has intensified as the war has moved further into the past.

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