World War I Food Propaganda Still Inspires Today

Public Domain. Smithsonian

On April 6, 1917 the United States joined Canada, Britain and other allies in the First World War. It took a while for them to send over a lot of troops, but they started supporting Britain and France economically right away with food. We have noted on TreeHugger before how the messaging from the government then was very much like the messaging environmentalists do now: eat less meat, buy local, serve just enough, eat it all and don’t waste it.

credit: Migrated Image

Now a new article by Dave McCowan on AV club looks at the issue and writes:

Unsung and nearly forgotten, the food calls to action from World War I paint a vivid picture of conservation and volunteerism, early nutritional science, and the birth of advertising. Not surprisingly, some of those behaviors —keeping backyard chickens, using dried peas as a meat substitute—have reemerged in 2017 as in vogue food trends.

It’s hardly unsung and nearly forgotten; lots of people have seen and discussed this, including us. But he does have some great detail about how much food was sent over, and how much Americans ate:

The focus of this food delivery infrastructure changed, however, when the U.S. entered the war in 1917. Although aid to allies continued, the primary concern became feeding American troops, and feeding them well. A typical daily ration for a U.S. infantryman during the Great War consisted of up to 5,000 calories made up from a pound or more of meat (bacon or fresh meat, rather than canned, when possible), 20 ounces of potatoes, and 18 ounces of bread (often produced in nearby field bakeries). This was about 20 percent more than the French or British could supply their men, and considerably more than the Germans, especially in the final months of conflict. This food often came straight from the homeland, and supply lines crossing the Atlantic were considered as important as the lines across Europe.
credit: Hoover valentine

Hoover valentine/Public Domain

Herbert Hoover, then a successful engineer and businessman, was put in charge of food distribution. The Committee on Public Information made all the great propaganda posters, and taught us how to Hooverize our diet.

The main message was clear: “Food will win the war. Waste nothing.” Wilson and others in the administration worried about the toll on morale that forced rationing would take, so these organizations acted to coax Americans into voluntarily cutting back rather than directing them by law. Homemakers (and even schoolchildren) were asked to sign pledges to conserve food and eat less meat, wheat, sugar, and fats, and peer pressure—Hang your sign in the window! Wear your pin!—applied the heat to keep promises.

People got into canning, planting victory gardens, having sheep and pig clubs, eating more vegetables and less meat. McCowan concludes:

The recipe of one part coercion to two parts patriotism might make some of the messages from World War I taste stale today, but there is no denying that many of the ideas of the era—such as supporting local agriculture, preserving fruits and vegetables, eating alternate proteins, and fighting food waste—are on the rebound. Some flavors linger.

So on April 6 have some Liberty Cabbage (sauerkraut) and Liberty Steaks (hamburgers) for dinner, or perhaps a nice vegan dinner, with Freedom Fries on the side. And for all of you who have read Gary Taubes' book on sugar, this one is for you.

credit: United States Food Administration

United States Food Administration/Public Domain