(Pictured Above: John’s grandfather William Gilbert in his Naval Uniform from World War II and a picture of a dust storm approaching buildings. John’s grandmother Mary grew up in Enid, Oklahoma during the Great Depression.)
A Brief History of Food
You most likely know someone who lived through the Great Depression and World War II. This period of time was incredibly transformative to the world we live in and, in a lot of ways, the food system and how we view food were some of the things most greatly affected.
Starting with the United States entry into World War I in 1917, this period of time in America’s relationship with food can largely be defined by scarcity and rationing. While there was never large-scale famine and starvation in this time period, most who lived through it remember stretching the food available to just get by.
World War I required the U.S. to shift a significant portion of the food supply to feed the more than 2 million U.S. troops on the European front, along with assisting allies whose food production capabilities were greatly reduced by the impact of the war. Farmers began using the first tractors and other mechanization, allowing expansion of crop ground through plowing up of sod, funded largely through federal loans from the federal land banks established in 1916. Additional food was also produced by establishment of “Liberty Gardens” in yards and spare ground and preserved primarily through canning, promoted in one of the first national marketing campaigns.
World War I Food Propaganda Posters via the Library of Congress
Following World War I, great economic expansion and prosperity was seen in metropolitan areas fueled by technological advancements such as automobiles, telephones, films, radio, electrical appliances, and aviation. It was a different story in rural areas, with the economic depression essentially beginning in the early 1920’s. As has happened many times in agricultural history, a short-term spike in prices spurred investment and increased production that then became overproduction, dropping prices by over half. To compound matters, a large number of farmers had taken out loans to purchase land that had now severely dropped in price and had increasing costs from machinery and taxes. This led to a large number of bankruptcies and bank failures in rural areas. Farmers were, for the most part, able to feed themselves from food they had grown and towns and cities had enough food to go around, but that would all change.
While food availability was not a large problem in the 1920’s, there was one thing that was hard to get ahold of: booze. Prohibition of alcohol sales was ratified as the 18th amendment and enacted in 1920 (later repealed by the 21st amendment in 1933). In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s in cities, clean water and unspoiled milk, ciders, and juices were often hard to come by, but alcoholic beverages, being self-sanitizing and shelf stable, were much easier to get. The culture of the time was to drink at saloons, which were oftentimes also the source of food for the working immigrant poor and played a large role in politics and public discourse. Instances of public drunkenness and rowdiness were enough, however, to motivate enough people to side with the temperance movement and enact prohibition.
In the fall of 1929, the stock market crashed with the Dow Jones Industrial Average losing nearly half of its value. A vicious cycle of fear and contraction would lead to nearly a quarter of America’s workers being unemployed. This led to a large number of people struggling to afford food, creating long lines of people seeking bread and other food from charities. This quickly outstripped the charities ability to provide food and eventually required federal aid. While out and out starvation was mostly avoided, malnutrition became a major problem; at least 1 in 9 draftees were rejected by the military for nutritional disease issues during World War 2.
In rural areas, prices for agricultural goods dropped due to the loss of demand from consumers struggling to afford food. Drought exacerbated the problems in rural areas. Expansion of crop acres to grow grains had reached into the great plains in Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas, and Nebraska. Excessive plowing had left the soil loose and unprotected, creating the conditions for what would become known as the “Dust Bowl”. Large dust storms would wreak havoc on the area and eventually create dust storms so massive that they reached the east coast in what became known as black blizzards. These poor conditions led to one of the larger migrations of U.S. history as farmers left their farms mainly travelling to the west coast and California (Grapes of Wrath anyone?). The plight of rural America would invoke federal aid in the start of federal farm programs and farm subsidies. The Soil Conservation Service, now known as the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), would also be created. New Deal projects included rural electrification and improvements of roads. This along with increased use of refrigeration would aid in the transport of farmers products to metropolitan areas, further changing the farmer’s role in society.
The Great Depression forced many to get by with whatever was cheap and filling. In this regard, canned and processed foods became more commonplace with even candy bars being seen as a cheap meal source. Creamed dishes and some weird food combinations were used more for nutrition than flavor. With the increased involvement of the federal government in food aid, increased emphasis was put on providing food to meet the minimums of nutrient requirements, evaluating food mainly for mineral and newly understood vitamin content. Fortification of food was a way to provide nutrients seen as lacking in the diet. This movement planted the seeds for modern judgement of foods based on their components, nutritionism, and a divergence from eating for satisfaction and enjoyment to eating to maintain health and weight.
With the U.S. slowly climbing out of the Great Depression, the onset of World War II would again place strains on the food supply and instigate rationing programs. With all energy placed into the war efforts, minimizing food waste, planting “Victory Gardens”, and canning again became a large part of government promotion and culture. Meanwhile, over 16 million U.S. soldiers were experiencing parts of the world previously unknown to them. While the ravages of war left indelible marks on returning soldiers, they also brought back tastes for new and more exciting cuisine. Soon, more flavorful dishes that had been confined to immigrant populations would become common meals on the dinner table and part of a burgeoning restaurant business.
World War II Posters from the USDA National Agriculture Library
Louisiana Agricultural Extension Division. “Save Money the Easy Way. Grow A Garden. It’s Thrifty It’s Patriotic Plant Today!.” Special Collections, USDA National Agricultural Library. Accessed October 18, 2021, https://www.nal.usda.gov/exhibits/speccoll/items/show/216.
Citizens Food Committee. 1947. “EMERGENCY! Save Wheat. Save Meat. Save the Peace..” Special Collections, USDA National Agricultural Library. Accessed October 18, 2021, https://www.nal.usda.gov/exhibits/speccoll/items/show/241.
U.S. Department of Agriculture. “It’s the American Farmers’ Job to Keep Them Fed!.” Special Collections, USDA National Agricultural Library. Accessed October 18, 2021, https://www.nal.usda.gov/exhibits/speccoll/items/show/242.
War Food Administration. 1944. “Lick the Platter Clean. Don’t Waste FOOD.” Special Collections, USDA National Agricultural Library. Accessed October 18, 2021, https://www.nal.usda.gov/exhibits/speccoll/items/show/243.
War Food Program. 1944. “Grow More… Can More… in ’44.” Special Collections, USDA National Agricultural Library. Accessed October 18, 2021, https://www.nal.usda.gov/exhibits/speccoll/items/show/244.
After the war, the American experience quickly changed, entering into a time period of prosperity and plenty that stood in stark contrast to the previous decades. Factories used for wartime efforts quickly found new uses in producing consumer goods including automobiles and appliances. On the agricultural front, processes used to produce explosives and wartime chemicals were altered to provide chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Along with the proliferation of tractors, these technologies would shape the future of agriculture.
Whenever humans are restricted from something they want, the tendency is to overcompensate when it becomes available again. And so it is with food. Post World War II American culture has appreciated the quantity of foods as much or more than the quality of food. Lack of food had created an impact that would influence generations to come. Most of us have certainly been told to “clean your plate,” eating all of the food served to us.
Federal farm policy has also promoted high production to ensure an abundant supply of cheap food. Certainly the motivation to “feed the world” has its roots in the World Wars and Great Depression. While the food pyramid is no more, evaluation and selection of food for nutritional attributes is ingrained in both policy and societal norms.
We can take many lessons from this part of American history. Access to food and nutrition is a human right, and far too many still struggle with hunger. But current policies and habits emphasize the highest quantity at the lowest cost without considering quality or the implications of where and how food was produced. We must examine our methods of farming, food storage, transportation, and preparation to ensure overall well-being to improve the health of us and our planet. Connecting with food is a step towards a more holistic future and is something we are passionate about pursuing. We hope you will join us.