Stories from the ‘Kitchen Front’

There is a powerful moment near the end of Marilyn Waring’s wonderful TED talk in which she eviscerates the GDP as the only way to measure our economy. People often ask why she doesn’t develop a system of accounts that measures the whole cake and not just the icing (the GDP). Her answer? “I do not want the most valuable things on earth, the things I treasure, sitting in an accounting framework that thinks that war is great for growth.”

Recently I was looking at some lesser-known stories about how war forces societal change. Many of these stories come out of the kind of values she is talking about – the ones not measured in the national accounts. War is not just about soldiers, tanks, bombs and battles. In the 2019 TED talk given by Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, you get a sense of what the world could look like if we focus on peace and well-being instead.

“I’m determined that Scotland will also be the country that helps change the focus of countries and governments across the world to put well-being at the heart of everything that we do. I think we owe that to this generation. I certainly believe we owe that to the next generation and all those that come after us.”

Housing as a human right

After the first World War, 150,000 wounded war veterans suffering from PTSD and squatting on the outskirts of Vienna helped to “really remake the public spaces of the city”, as architect David Gissen says in his new book, The Architecture of Disability. Those “Red Vienna” years set the stage for today’s Vienna, one of the world’s most livable cities. “More than 60% of the city’s 1.8 million inhabitants live in subsidized housing and nearly half of the housing market is made up of city-owned flats or cooperative apartments,” says Politico Europe.

Right after the war, Vienna experienced what we might call a ‘perfect storm’. Wikipedia explains: “Refugees from Austrian Galicia, including roughly 25,000 Jews seeking to avoid the political violence of the Russian Civil War that had spread to the area, had settled in the capital city. At the end of the war, many former soldiers of the Imperial and Royal Army came to stay in Vienna, while many former Imperial-Royal government ministry officials returned to their native lands, creating a large exchange of multiethnic populations both in and out of Vienna in the years that followed. The middle classes, many of whom had bought War Bonds that were now worthless, were plunged into poverty by hyperinflation. New borders between Austria and the nearby regions cut Vienna off from lands that had traditionally fed Vienna for centuries, thus rendering food supply difficult. Existing apartments were overcrowded, and diseases such as tuberculosis, the Spanish flu, and syphilis raged.”

In 1917, the Imperial-Royal Government had passed a tenant protection act that immediately took effect in Vienna, freezing apartment rents at their 1914 levels – making new private housing projects unprofitable and creating huge postwar demand for affordable apartments. In May 1919, after the end of World War I, the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) won its first election in Vienna, and, apart from the WWII years, has governed the city ever since. The SPÖ made housing its No. 1 priority, focusing on securing quality homes for the thousands of industrial workers and refugees living in slums outside the city limits.

Beyond providing shelter, the aim was to create a more equitable society, says Eve Blau, director of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University and an expert on Vienna’s social housing. “The government constructed 400 apartment complexes–64,000 new apartments in all–that together housed one-tenth of the city’s population. The pride of Vienna’s residential-building program was the majestic Karl-Marx-Hof (Karl Marx House), [which featured] state-of-the-art kindergartens, playgrounds, maternity clinics, health-care offices, lending libraries, laundries, and a host of other social services.”

That led to a “unique system nearly a century in the making”, Governing magazine explained in 2013.  Vienna’s city government decided that housing is a human right that should not be left up to the free market. As a result, “residents enjoy high-quality apartments with inexpensive rent, along with renters’ rights that would be unheard of in the U.S.”

Vienna’s city government owns and manages 220,000 housing units – about 25% of the city’s housing stock and meant primarily for lower-income residents – and indirectly controls 200,000 units built and owned by limited-profit private developers but developed through a city-regulated process.

Today, around 50% of all Viennese live in subsidized dwellings – either in the 220,000 municipal units or the 200,000 co-operative flats built with municipal subsidies, says vice-mayor Kathrin Gaál, and Vienna’s 1,800 municipal housing estates alone are home to almost half a million citizens. The city’s income restrictions for subsidized units only apply when families first move in. Residents are never required to move out, even if household income levels increase, so many moderate-income residents live in subsidized housing. 

Rationing made Britons healthy

WWII was not just fought on the military front. There was a Kitchen Front, too, and it was made up primarily of women who had to feed their families within the government’s rationing policy. But surprisingly, rationing in the United Kingdom improved the health of a whole generation of Britons. 

“For some families, the Second World War brought positive changes to their nutritional intake,” says the National Archives. “Before 1939, working-class families consumed just half the calcium of better-off families, and much less than was required for good health. During the war, however, the wide availability of milk and the fortification of flour with calcium meant that the diets of almost all civilians, regardless of class, contained at least the recommended daily allowance of 1000 milligrams of calcium. A similar positive effect was found in the Government’s Vitamin Welfare Scheme for children, which supplied under-fives with a portion of orange juice every day.”

Alex Liivet, Chester, UK – WWII kitchen, Wikimedia

“While women arguably experienced a ‘social revolution’ during the Second World War with more opportunities in work and leisure, women – as expected, particularly given the absence of many men – remained the heads of the ‘Kitchen Front’. In fact rationing, beginning in January 1940 with bacon, butter and sugar, made the lives of women even more difficult, largely as they had to queue longer and feed the family on less food.” The government produced a Kitchen Front radio broadcast every morning, suggesting new, experimental recipes and providing updates on food news for the day, as well as recipe booklets and war cookery calendars.

Vancouver writer Eleanor Boyle, author of Mobilize Food! Wartime Inspiration for Environmental Victory Today, sees parallels with today. “Wartime food has been on my mind since I first learned about Britain’s World War II Ministry of Food, and the nation’s transformation of agriculture and diets in hopes that domestic food security would help win the war,” she writes. 

“We have a climate emergency, pandemics, serious inequality, and global conflicts, plus health and social reasons that food systems need a reboot,” she says. “While our aim is not to win a military victory, food goals today do include: less dependence on uncertain imports; more plant-based and less livestock-based agriculture and diets; and much less food waste. Maybe we could take cues from the past.”

Britain began preparing in the 1930s. “The Conservative government was not prone to involvement in markets, but remembered British hunger during the First World War, and knew that conflict wrecks food systems, as we now see in Ukraine, Yemen, and beyond,” she explains. So the government cut food imports, plowed farm pastures to plant crops for people, encouraged citizens to grow and raise more of their own food, reduced food waste, implemented rationing of foods such as meats, butter, sugar, and some imports so everyone got a fair share, ensured “availability of adequate calories and nutrients via price controls, school food, and publicly run British Restaurants”, and started voluntary schemes like the Women’s Land Army and holiday farm camps to address farm labour shortages.

It all worked extraordinarily well, even if meals were dull and children never saw bananas. The 1946 national medical report called wartime health “phenomenally good,” Boyle says. “Death rates fell for women in childbirth, for infants and for children. Adults showed lowered mortality from tuberculosis and pneumonia, and levels of diabetes declined. Historians agree that food played a central role.”

Alternatives to the GDP

It was in 1944, after the Bretton Woods conference that established international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, that GDP became the standard tool for sizing up a country’s economy. But there have been many critiques of GDP since Marilyn Waring began asking questions about GDP as the basis of New Zealand’s national accounts,

“Out of the carnage of the Great Depression and World War II rose the idea of gross domestic product, or GDP: the ultimate measure of a country’s overall welfare, a window into an economy’s soul, the statistic to end all statistics,” said Foreign Policy in 2011. “Its use spread rapidly, becoming the defining indicator of the last century. But in today’s globalized world, it’s increasingly apparent that this Nobel-winning metric is too narrow for these troubled economic times.”

Some alternatives that have been proposed include the UN’s Human Development Index; the Genuine Progress Index; the Thriving Places Index; Green GDP; Better Life Index; Inclusive Wealth Index; Genuine Savings Indicator; and the Happy Planet Index. And there is, as there always has been, the Indigenous vision of looking seven generations back and seven generations forward. Wales uses it as their basis for policy and legislation.


How Vienna took the stigma out of social housing. Politico Europe, Jun. 30, 202

How European-Style Public Housing Could Help Solve The Affordability Crisis. NPR, Feb. 25, 2020

Social housing in Vienna. City of Vienna.

‘Victory is in the Kitchen’: Wartime lessons for today’s food systems? Table Debates, Aug. 10, 2022

GDP alternatives: 8 ways of measuring economic health. Intheblack, Sep. 6, 2021

Cover image: About 500,000 persons today live in Vienna’s municipal housing estates. This makes the City of Vienna the biggest municipal housing provider in Europe. Wiener Wohnen administers and manages more than 220,000 flats and approx. 1,800 housing estates in the Austrian capital. (Photo: City of Vienna)

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