Cheese manufacturer James L. Kraft first introduced the Kraft Dinner (“KD”) in a mostly yellow box in 1937. It caught on during the lingering hard times of the Great Depression with marketing that boasted of a meal for four that could be ready in nine minutes—all for 19 cents.
KD strengthened its foothold during World War II. The short prep time made it handy when more wives and mothers were heading into the workforce. It was filling in an era where meatless meals were often the order of the day. And there was a coupon.
Along with conserving gasoline, paper, clothes and rubber products during WWII, folks on the home front were expected to do their part by conserving food. Starting in 1942, American families were issued coupon books with stamps, both red and blue, that correlated to specific types of items. The system was complicated, with expiration dates, point systems—and food shortages. Having a coupon didn’t mean a commodity was necessarily available, and coupons weren’t the same as legal tender. Even with the right stamps, you still needed cash to bring home the groceries.
Red stamp commodities included meats, oils, butter, and certain hard cheeses. Blue stamps got you frozen and canned fruits and vegetables, juices, dry beans, and processed foods. Other commodities, including coffee, sugar, clothing, gas, tires, and shoes, had their own stamps. That left you predominately eggs, milk, soft cheeses, chicken, grains, fish, and dried and fresh fruits and vegetables to work with.
The hassle and shortages that accompanied rationing affected more than just the pantry. Scarcity led to a vigorous black market, especially for sugar, meat, and gasoline. On the other side of the law, Victory Gardens produced as much as 40 percent of the produce consumed in the U.S. by war’s end. And how’s this for an unexpected bonus—today nutritionists believe that rationing during World War II resulted in temporarily improved nutrition, with a reduction in obesity and type 2 diabetes.
One of those ration coupons could get you two boxes of Kraft Dinner. And while you sure can’t feed a family of four for 19 cents anymore, and nobody’s offering up rationing (yet) as a way to wage war on obesity, generations of kids and college students will tell you that after 75 years, mac and cheese hasn’t lost its place on the American palate. Or in the American pantry.