Here’s a challenge for all of you home chefs: Can recite this motto truthfully at the end of each day?
I worked for freedom today.
I served at least one food from each of the basic seven food groups.
I prepared the food I served with care.
I wasted no food today.
Whoa, you might be thinking, food does not have to be that serious! But it was for American families during World War II. So much food was needed to feed the troops overseas that folks back home had to sacrifice and get creative with what was available. In honor of our exhibition Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms, we’ll be spending the Fourth of July exploring the important relationship between freedom and food during WWII. Visitors to the Museum that day can visit several activity tables to learn about how soldiers and families ate during the war, how rationing worked, and what special foods that we know today were actually invented for soldiers. We’ll even be giving out one such food (Hint: It’s a delicious candy!) to all visitors for free.
Just how different was food culture in the mid-1940s compared to today? We can start to answer that question by checking out this 1943 Betty Crocker booklet called Your Share: How to prepare appetizing, healthful meals with foods available today. This letter within was addressed to “home-makers.”
During the Second World War, civilians had to become soldiers in the kitchen! As the letter states, “Every American home-maker who selects food wisely, prepares it carefully, and conserves it diligently is an important link in our national war effort.” Knowing there would be food shortages during the war, President Franklin Roosevelt established the Office of Price Administration in 1942, which created a system of regulating how people on the home front could buy food so that enough nutritious food could be diverted to the armed forces—a system called rationing. This Betty Crocker booklet and materials put out by the U.S. Department of Agriculture helped civilians select foods at the grocery store that would add up to healthy, tasty, and “attractive” (very important according to Betty Crocker!) meals, and offered recipes based on rationed foods. When purchasing foods, civilians had to pay with money and with ration tokens or stamps. That was the key to rationing—each person was only allowed to buy certain quantities of certain foods at certain time intervals, even if they could afford to buy more of that food more frequently.
The “Basic Seven” food groups were introduced in 1941 with possible food shortages in mind. The food groups emphasized dairy, fruits, vegetables, and grains over the most scarce wartime food group: meat. Many people regarded the seven groups as both too complicated and not informative enough. For example, the only serving size that was defined was for milk. When we compare the basic food groups during WWII with those of today’s www.myplate.gov initiative, there are some notable differences.
Today, the five basic food groups are fruits, vegetables, grains, proteins, and dairy. In 1943, three out of the seven food groups were different combinations of fruits and vegetables because of the predominance of certain vitamins among them. For example, Group II included “oranges, tomatoes, grapefruit, raw cabbage. and salad greens” because they were high in Vitamin C. And then there was Group VII—butter, which was considered a healthy source of fat back then! Today, butter is considered an “empty calorie” source to be avoided.
Wartime food shortages could be a hassle, but most U.S. civilians ate very well in spite of them. Historian Elizabeth Collingham, author of The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food, notes that each American civilian ate about 2.5 pounds of meat per week throughout the war, which was far more than British or Soviet civilians got. Nevertheless, a “black market” of food goods was available for those willing to bend the rationing rules and pay more for extra or better quality foods. The U.S. government attempted to combat cheating and shame these “part-time Americans” by instituting the Home Front Pledge: “I pay no more than top legal prices. I accept no rationed goods without giving up ration stamps.” Eleanor Roosevelt herself took the pledge and changed the way food was prepared and served at the White House as a result. U.S. civilians also increased their food conservation by canning more fruits and vegetables. The government even encouraged people to plant “victory gardens” so they could grow their own fruits and veggies. At one point there were more than 20 million victory gardens in the United States!
That’s just a “taste” of how important food was to the war effort in the 1940s. Join us on July 4th to learn even more and sample some wartime fare for both soldiers and civilians. (Did we mention kids age 17 and under get free Museum Admission that day?) While you’re here, don’t forget to visit our Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms and join us for related activities about what freedom means to you, today. See you then!
Written by Rachel Walman
Assistant Director, DiMenna Children’s History Museum