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The people who kindly agreed to house children evacuated from Britain’s cities during the second World War faced a number of unexpected difficulties. The first was vermin – body lice. Some children, particularly from inner city slums, were so verminous that their clothes – not that they had many of them – had to be burnt on arrival at their new evacuation homes in the country…

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“Many kind-hearted people had been looking forward to the children who they thought of as innocent mites, but what they got was far removed from what they expected. Most of the evacuees arrived in rags with no soles to their shoes – their parents sent them thus so that they would get new clothes in the receiving areas. At Stirling forty of the children were found to be verminous. When one girl arrived the hostess had to burn all her clothes, shave her head and bathe her in disinfectant.”

PAM ASHFORD – Wartime Diary

Another problem was many of the children were poorly nourished. Although it was rare in 1939 to find a hungry child – most family incomes were sufficient to buy stomach filling quantities of bread – there was not enough money to buy the right kind of food…

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…“They live on white bread. The chief food is fish and chips. They get very little fruit, it is too dear. The only vegetable eaten is the potato. Oranges are only seen at school treats. The tea pot is always on the hob.”

AN EAST END CLERGYMAN

To address the problem of poorly nourished children the wartime government encouraged people to take up the Oslo Breakfast, pioneered in Norway during the 1920’s as a way of providing schoolchildren with more nutritious food.

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“You may have heard of the Oslo breakfast. This is a cold meal, full of vitamins. In Norway it consists of milk, wholemeal bread, goats cheese and fruit. They found that children who started their day with this breakfast flourished.”

BBC HOME SERVICE PROGRAMME 22nd November 1939

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The Oslo Breakfast or ‘Oslofrokosten’ was developed by Norwegian professor of hygiene and bacteriology Prof. Carl Schiötz to be healthy and make good any deficiencies in the home diet. It consisted of wholemeal bread (Kneippbrød) supplying vitamin B and mineral salts missing from white bread. Deficiencies of animal protein were made good by goat’s cheese and a glass of milk – which also supplied vitamins and minerals. Protection against scurvy – a real danger in northern countries – was provided by half an apple or orange, a lettuce salad or a raw carrot. In addition there was also a good sized pat of butter adding vitamins A and D. If a child was still hungry after eating this meal it was allowed to eat more bread and margarine. Extra ingredients might include slices of raw uncooked vegetable, such as carrots or swedes. Between autumn and spring, a dose of cod liver oil could be included. Widely reported studies suggested it delivered excellent results for the children’s long-term health and was far healthier than a more traditional hot meal of meat and cooked vegetables.

As an example of the positive reports from trials of the breakfast, Jack Drummond of London University said that after 130 poor children had been fed on the breakfast, the effects had been “remarkable”. The children had lost the poor skin conditions common at the time, and had enjoyed a 25% gain in height over those not having the breakfast

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During the 1930s the Oslo Breakfast became famous and was copied by programmes in Scandinavia, Europe, and the wider world. Even before the second World War had started and our own nutritional problems became evident British dieticians Professor J.C Drummond and Anne Wilbraham were vocal advocates for its introduction…

“This scheme which the late Professor Carl Schiötz of Oslo did so much to foster demands immediate attention in this country. It seems to offer a simple and effective solution of the major problem of nutrition as we see it in England today. With efficient organisation a similar scheme could soon be fitted into our existing framework for providing meals.”

THE ENGLISHMAN’S FOOD Drummond and Wilbraham (pub 1939)

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By the late 1950s the provision of Oslo breakfasts by schools had largely ceased; replaced by more popular hot meals, or sometimes just dropped altogether as rising prosperity meant the provision of free school meals was seen as less necessary. Today as we revel in assorted food fads and fancies, suffer from food associated conditions like obesity, diabetes and food intolerance and continue to worry about our children’s poor nutrition we might care to try the Oslo Breakfast again – a simple, cheap and nourishing way to good health.

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“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”

HIPPOCRATES 460BC

— from Martyn Day