by Jennifer Pustz
“The consumption of sugar sweetened drinks must be reduced” . . . “use less meat and wheat” . . . “buy local foods.” These are familiar phrases at the Friedman School in 2017. But these slogans and many others could be found on posters one hundred years ago after the United States officially entered World War I in April 1917. Friedman student Jennifer Pustz a story from food history that may offer inspiration for the promotion of gardening, conservation, and sustainability in the twenty-first century.
One hundred years ago, on April 6, 1917, the United States ended over two years of neutrality and officially entered World War I. Although the war ended in November of the next year, the nineteen-month period of involvement had an enormous impact on everyday life in the U.S., especially when it came to food and government engagement in food supply and distribution. In Victory Gardens, canning clubs, and kitchens all over America, women engaged in a massive effort to produce, preserve, and conserve food to support the war effort.
By the time the United States entered the war, the issue of food production and conservation had become a top priority for American soldiers and European civilians. After nearly three years of constant ground war, Europe’s agricultural fields were ravaged, much of the labor force had joined the military, and trade was disrupted both on land and at sea. The result was a humanitarian crisis that required the assistance of the United States, whose policy of neutrality and geographic distance from the front lines had protected agricultural production from serious harm.
President Wilson established the United States Food Administration by executive order on August 10, 1917, and Congress passed the Food and Fuel Control Act, also known as the Lever Act. Herbert Hoover, a former mining engineer with prior experience in facilitating food aid to Europe, was hired to serve as the administrator. The Food Administration’s goals were broad—from regulating exports and managing the domestic food supply, to preventing hoarding and profiteering, to promoting agriculture and food conservation. In addition to the federal program, state branches of the Food Administration promoted programs that met the needs of their residents and responded to their own unique food production and consumption issues.
Hoover took no salary to provide a model of self-sacrifice that he hoped to see in other Americans. One remarkable aspect of the World War I Food Administration story is the overwhelming success of a voluntary effort. In a report about the Massachusetts Committee on Public Safety, published shortly after the war’s conclusion, the author noted the following:
“At no point, even in the most intense shortage of sugar, did the Food Administration establish any legally effective system of rationing for householders; and in the case of both sugar and wheat substitutes, the selfish disregard of Food Administration requests, shown by a few, was much more than offset by the voluntary efforts of that great majority who went well beyond the requested measures, and brought about a total saving far greater than would have been possible by a mechanical rationing program” (311).
Efforts to increase food production targeted large-scale farmers to homeowners with very little land, and almost everyone in between. Even industrial sites engaged in food production. At the American Woolen Company’s 50 mills, over 500 acres were cultivated; factory workers produced over 45,000 bushels of potatoes, 40,000 ears of sweet corn, and thousands of bushels of root crops and summer vegetables. The industrial production was so successful that it was “recognized by many manufacturers that such provision for their employees is of great value, not only in contributing to the support of families, but in its bearing on permanence of occupation and on contentment of mind” (339).
Household Victory Gardens sprouted up in “all manner of unheard-of-places” and allowed homeowners to reduce their dependence on the national food supply by growing their own produce for immediate consumption and canning the surplus for winter months. The U. S. Food Administration advocated for raising livestock as well and promoted “Pig Clubs” for boys and girls. Pigs could aid in reduction of food waste by eating the family’s household scraps. In Massachusetts, the supply of pigs was unable to meet the demand for them.
A massive publicity and communication campaign supported the public adoption of conservation methods. Posters that promoted reduced consumption of sugar, wheat, and meat played upon emotions of patriotism and guilt. Literature on food conservation was translated into at least eleven languages in Massachusetts: Armenian, Finnish, French, Greek, Italian, Lithuanian, Polish, Portuguese, Swedish, Syrian, and Yiddish. More than 800,000 of these leaflets were distributed. A group of five cottages, surrounded by demonstration gardens, were located in the Boston Common between May and October 1918, where visitors could hear lectures, see demonstrations, and pick up educational materials.
Americans who participated in home gardening and preserving their harvests took some burden off of the general food supply. In Topsfield, Massachusetts, a canning club provided facilities and services for fruit and vegetable preservation. For a 50-cent membership, one could order and buy from the club’s stock at 4 percent discount, send her vegetables and fruits to be preserved in exchange for the cost of labor plus overhead, or could do her own canning using the club’s facilities, which were open 4 days per week. In one season, the canning club produced 3000 jars of fruits and vegetables, 1800 glasses of jelly, and 500 pounds of jam.
Americans voluntarily adopted practices such as “Wheatless Mondays” and “Meatless Tuesdays,” as did hotels and restaurants, which participated in “No White Bread Week” between August 6-12, 1917. Recipes that conserved sugar, wheat, fats, and meat dominated women’s publications and cookbooks of the time. The 1918 book Foods that Will Win the War and How to Cook Them included this recipe for “War Bread”:
2 cups boiling water
2 tablespoons sugar
1 ½ teaspoons salt
¼ cup lukewarm water
2 tablespoons fat
6 cups rye flour
1 ½ cups whole wheat flour
1 cake yeast
To the boiling water, add the sugar, fat and salt. When lukewarm, add the yeast which has been dissolved into the lukewarm water. Add the rye and whole wheat flour. Cover and let rise until twice its bulk, shape into loaves; let rise until double and bake about 40 minutes in a moderately hot oven.
Young people were not exempt from “doing their bit.” The U. S. Food Administration published books, including some for use in schools, to influence young readers who would pass the message on to their parents. Home economics textbooks for college classes applied lessons on macro- and micronutrients and energy metabolism to the state of the food supply in the United States and abroad.
After the war ended on November 11, 1918, the activities of the Food Administration slowed and the agency was eliminated in August 1920. The government implemented mandatory rationing during World War II, but since then, Americans have experienced little to no government interference with their food consumption. Many of the voluntary efforts promoted in the name of patriotism in 1917 and 1918 resonate with some of the food movements of today, such as reducing the amount of added sugar in foods and increasing consumption of whole grains. One would hope it would not take a war and a national propaganda campaign to change behaviors, but perhaps it is worth looking back one hundred years for inspiration to promote gardening, healthier and more sustainable eating habits, and reduced food waste.
Jennifer Pustz is a first-year NICBC student in the MS-MPH dual degree program. In her previous professional work as a historian, Jen’s research interests focused on the history of domestic life, especially the lives of domestic workers, the history of kitchens, domestic technology, and of course, food.
C. Houston and Alberta M. Goudiss. Foods that Will Win the War and How to Cook Them. New York: World Syndicate Co., 1918; George Hinckley Lyman. The Story of the Massachusetts Committee On Public Safety: February 10, 1917-November 21, 1918. Boston: Wright & Potter Printing Co., 1919.