Avoid wheat, eat less meat and fried foods, use more legumes, stop with the sugary drinks, limit the cake and pastry, buy local—advice we now hear a good deal, but, 100 years ago, it was downright patriotic. As World War I devastated Europe and the United States entered the war in 1917, American mobilization on the home front operated on a major theme, “Food Will Win the War.” Herbert Hoover, then a humanitarian and engineer, was called upon by President Woodrow Wilson to head the project. With trade routes disrupted and the fields of Europe abandoned by farmers and bloodied by soldiers, the Allies were relying on the United States for foodstuffs. Now Hoover was faced with seeing that the massive American force “Over There” was also fed. All of this followed upon two years of a poor food crop in the American Midwest. Hoover refused a salary, setting the example of volunteerism that would make his United States Food Administration an overall success.
The effort also exhibited the talents of the war propaganda machine, the emerging modern advertising industry, and printmakers and artists, all demonstrated here in the rich collection of posters in the New-York Historical Society Library. The Food Administration’s rationales and recommendations are also noted.
We must cut down our use of wheat by one-third because the people of Europe are eating corn and barley and rye—this “war bread” that is darker and heavier, and we should assist them to make a “raised loaf.” While this logic may seem peculiar to those of us who are now encouraged to eat whole grains, it was elsewhere admitted that the white bread was meant for the U.S. troops in the field who would shun unfamiliar foods in their rations.
“We can not send them corn because they have not enough mills to grind it” and “we can not send them corn meal because it spoils in shipping.”
“Have at least TWO WHEATLESS days (Monday and Wednesday) each week and ONE WHEATLESS MEAL each day.” Order bread from bakers in advance so there is no surplus. “Eat less cake and pastry.”
While they may have been overstating the protein content of cottage cheese vis-à-vis beef, the idea was that “Beef and pork keep the armies and workers in fighting trim. All Europe has eaten into its herds of meat animals down to the danger point” while “we have been eating twice what we needed.”
Since fish and chicken cannot be easily compacted for shipping and are more perishable, eat more of that protein—rabbits are good, too.
“Have at least ONE MEATLESS DAY (Tuesday) and TWO PORKLESS DAYS (Tuesday and Saturday) each week and ONE MEATLESS MEAL each day.” “Use more soups. Use beans; they have nearly the same food value as meat.”
“Remember that no grain or other human food was used to feed the fish that gives you nourishment.”
“Animal fats mean pork and dairy products. The nation that is without enough of these is destroyed.” Even though we have increased our exports tenfold, “we must increase our shipments still further.”
“Use butter on the table only.” “We can safely eat and use in cooking more vegetable oils, giving the children plenty of butter and milk, and thus save what is necessary to send over-seas.”
“Save lard by eating less fried foods.”
“Sugar is a food that releases energy in the quickest way.” The sugar beet fields of France and Belgium are unable to produce much, and England is cut off from “far-off Java.” “The whole demand of the Allies now falls on Cuba and us, and we rely upon Cuba for part of our own needs. To meet the situation we must cut down our lavish consumption, and share with the Allies.”
“Cut down on sweet drinks and candy containing sugar. Use honey, maple syrup, corn syrup, or molasses on the breakfast table instead of sugar. Serve cake without frosting or icing. Eat plenty of fruit.”
Food Administration officials were aware that they had less impact on poorer and immigrant communities, and, even then, complained that New York City, in particular, had altogether too many ethnic restaurants where their message went unheard.
Herbert Hoover had no love for food fads, but the encouragement of voluntary, scientific substitution rather than rationing worked: Domestic food production increased even as farmers went to war, and shipments abroad multiplied by three. It may be hard to judge how American food habits permanently changed, but middle class consumers did end up eating more fruits and vegetables.
There are no plans to take homegrown supplies of private citizens. “Only there must be no unnecessary buying and holding of food supplies—in a word, no hoarding. The hoarder is an enemy at home.”
Several generations of Americans will remember this legacy of “the clean plate club” in the days before we worried about childhood obesity. However, the following invitation to sexist gluttony may not go down as well to modern ears and stomachs:
This post is by Mariam Touba, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections