“Food Will Win the War” was the slogan of the US Food Administration in 1917; can food win a war? I’ve been cleaning out a storage building and a house. I’ve sorted through bags and bags of mail from 1987 to now, disposed of boxes of paper scraps, broken toys, and canned food so old that the cans are leaking. Hidden amid the mountain of junk, I’ve also rescued two baby books, a 1910 teaching contract, antique maps, and a copy of “Food Saving and Sharing” – the 1918 textbook prepared under the direction of The United States Food Administration.
This 102 page book, which was distributed to teachers in schools across the US, provides basic information about food and its function, interweaves cultural myths, and promotes conserving food, cleaning your plate (that probably sounds familiar), and helping the nation and its allies through personal sacrifice. For me, reading this now at a different point in history provides much food for thought.
Established in 1917, the US Food Administration was the agency responsible for the administration of U.S. Army overseas and Allies’ food reserves. The Food Administration’s goals were to provide food for its own troops and those of its Allies in war-torn Europe as well as to feed the American and Allied populations. Although the name sounds similar, this agency was not related to the Food and Drug Administration which was instituted in 1938 to enforce the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.
Herbert Hoover was tapped by President Woodrow Wilson to lead the organization. As head of the agency, Hoover was quoted as saying, “Our conception of the problem in the United States is that we should assemble the voluntary effort of the people…We propose to mobilize the spirit of self-denial and self-sacrifice in this country.”
“Food Will Win the War” became the slogan featured on widely disseminated posters, articles, and educational material. Concepts such as “Meatless Mondays” and “Wheatless Wednesdays” were implemented to encourage US citizens to voluntarily conserve food so that more commodities would be available to send to the Allies.
The campaign was successful, resulting in a 15% reduction in domestic food consumption without rationing. In a 12-month period from 1918 to 1919 the US furnished 18,500,000 tons of food to the Allies.
About half of the book “Food Saving and Sharing” is food education. I was struck by the accuracy of the information included. With more sophisticated lab technology, years of additional research, and multiple media outlets for disseminating information, it seems that we should have
significantly greater knowledge and be more accurately informed regarding nutrition now than we were 100 years ago. Instead, we have a wealth of confusing, conflicting, misleading information to sort through. It’s tough for most of us to know what to believe.
I recently watched a national TV morning news segment in which an MD stated that yogurt was not a good breakfast food because of all the sugar it contains. She did not qualify that statement in any way and it’s simply not true. Plain yogurt contains no sugar other than lactose from milk. If made at home and processed for 24 hours, even the lactose breaks down.
If milk is a good breakfast food, then yogurt is just as good. Well, actually better for most of us so long as the yogurt contains live bacteria. What’s not so good are yogurts that have sugars, sweeteners, gums, and flavors added. The distinction is important. If that distinction isn’t made, the public is being misinformed. And not just misinformed by misleading advertising (which is constant and bad enough), but misinformed by an authority figure with a national platform presenting the information as fact.
My experience of frequent frustration with current presentation of food and nutrition information, advertising, disinformation, and inaccurately reported research stands in contrast to the simple, clear message delivered a century ago. Reading this book it was interesting to see the food knowledge of 1918.
“Food Saving and Sharing” explains the functions of food and four basic food groups using the imagery of a child shopping for food in an imaginary market. The book explains each food group and why it should be included in the child’s basket. At that time, milk spanned the spectrum of each food group and was considered important for children because of its protein and “lime” (calcium) content.
Here’s what we can learn from the book:
The Functions of Food
1)Fuel to keep us warm and give us energy for work.
2)To build and repair the body.
3)To keep the machinery of the body in good running order.
The first group is fruits and vegetables. (Notice that it was not grains.)
The book states that we need the mineral matter supplied by fruit, vegetables and milk to make teeth and bones. We also need them for vitamins that make us grow. Not much was known about the amount of vitamins needed at that time, but it was known they are important to health.
We also learn that fruits and vegetables contain a lot of water which we also need. Water comprises 60 lbs of every 90 pounds of weight in an adult. (As you can see, this is very close to the 64% water we now estimate the human body to be.)
While the term fiber is never used in the book, there are repeated references to the “bulk” and “things that are not readily digested” that help move food through the digestive tract.
The second group is proteins.
The word protein means “of the first importance”. Protein is important because it is needed for growth and repair. Children who don’t get enough protein become stunted.
Proteins included in this group are milk, cheese, eggs, nuts, seeds, fish, seafood, legumes, and meat. Meat is not necessary if we use the right foods in its place. According to this text, if we rely on beans and peas we need some milk, eggs, or meat as well.
The book also encourages us to get over our prejudice about fish stating, “It is foolish and narrow-minded to be afraid to try new kinds.” (I don’t know much about the origin of this fish prejudice, but my father had it and my sister still does.)
The third food group is cereals (grains).
Cereals are presented as the cheapest source of energy. All cereal grains are good producers of starch. They are easy to cook, but must be cooked for a long time, so prepared cereals have been put on the market. For instance, rolled oats are oats steamed, then crushed between heavy rollers.
Wisely, we’re informed that if we eat more peas and beans, we will not need so much bread, and when there’s a shortage of grains, we can eat potatoes instead.
Fourth is the group called sugars and sweets.
The consumption of sugars is not highly encouraged. While it is asserted that sugar provides quick energy for emergency rations, it is also recognized that: “Sugar is so agreeable that we are often inclined to eat it in too large quantities or at the wrong time.” It will spoil your appetite because it makes you feel as if you don’t care for anything more even though your body may be in need of food.
Further noted are the facts that you can get sugar from fruits and vegetables and that potatoes or bread will provide quick energy as well.
The rest of the book sings the praises of our troops and allies and encourages us to conserve so we can support those who live in war-torn areas. While the reasons for conservation may now differ, it is still a timely message.
Can Food Win a War Now?
In spite of a long growing season and an agricultural history, my state reports a food insecurity rate of over 25%. Somehow that seems unfathomable when according to the Environmental Protection Agency, wasted food is the single biggest occupant in American landfills.
Across the nation, the US throws away 60 million tons (or $160 billion) worth of produce annually. We waste between 30 & 40 percent of our food supply while 12.3% of our households (15.6 million) are uncertain of having, or are unable to acquire, at some time during the year, enough food to meet the needs of all their members because of insufficient money or other resources.
Surely we can find a way to win the war on hunger here at home!
“Food Saving and Sharing” seems to only promote the positive aspects of a particular course of action rather than presenting the pros and cons of multiple options. It uses familiar cultural myths to encourage compliance with the course of action it promotes. That sounds like propaganda to
Yet oddly, the presentation of the message feels so much more informative, unifying, and positive than the majority of messages bombarding my screens every day, I find myself longing for this kind of straightforward promotion and the message that the US is us.
The US is us!
With or without this book’s existence, I choose to believe the general premise that each of us makes a difference. Our choices determine whether that difference pulls our families, friends, communities, and institutions forward or leaves someone else with a greater burden.
Individually, we can choose to leave our fears, recognize our value, and work each day to learn more about nutrition, waste less, face poverty, practice compassion, and make a positive difference. Collectively, we can choose to meet seemingly insurmountable goals.
Food can win this war! We can decide to feed our food insecure. We just need to again mobilize a spirit of self-denial and self-sacrifice in this country. We need to embrace the truth that the US is us…ALL of us and we can make a difference!