Grow for it: A message about food from the president

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In 1945, during the fourth year of America's direct involvement in World War II, President Harry Truman issued a proclamation about food. He called for those on the home front to plant larger victory gardens, to preserve more food, and to minimize food waste. This proclamation came after years of propaganda about growing a Victory Garden, the operation of community canning centers across the country, rationing of premium foods, and other wartime policies, and so I'm guessing that it was taken in stride by the Home Front population.

Poster from the Office of War Information, 1943

Poster from the Office of War Information, 1943

Since running across the proclamation, I have been wondering if a similar announcement from our current president would be useful. While we aren't facing something as immediately dire as a world war, some daunting challenges could be addressed with better food policy — the economic crisis, peak oil, climate chaos, wave after wave of food-safety crises, lives destroyed by diet-related maladies like diabetes and heart disease, to name a few. The recommendations would necessarily be different, perhaps with a items about trying to cooking at home more, or choosing unprocessed foods.

After some thought — and a lot of exposure to mass media — I don't see that much would be gained by a proclamation. In these days of 24-hour cable channels, blogs, Twitter, and the like, it might garner a tiny box in the "National News" section of the newspaper, five seconds on CNN, or a few Tweets, and then disappear into the federal archives.

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First Lady Michelle Obama in the White House garden

Even more likely, it would be overshadowed by continuing coverage of the White House Kitchen Garden (WHKG), part of First Lady Michelle Obama's "brilliant end run" to shape the nation's food policy. The garden is an amazing publicity machine, appearing in every conceivable form of media (with Obama Foodorama doing a lot of original reporting as well as deconstructing other coverage), and giving the Obamas an opportunity to make food and agriculture part of the mainstream national conversation.

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but it also looks like one high-profile,  determined advocate is worth a thousand proclamations or propaganda posters. Michelle Obama's lively personality, understanding of the issues, and experience with a personal challenge that many can relate to — raising healthy children in an unhealthy culture — humanizes the often abstract world of food policy.

Images from the University of North Texas digital collections.; Michelle Obama photo from America.gov.

4 Responsesto “Grow for it: A message about food from the president”

  1. I wonder if home canning is going to make a bit of a comeback? And I don't mean amongst foodies, but in the mainstream public. Each year I can my own pickles and butternut squash, and this year my wife and I will make a stab at tomatoes and peaches. You don't necessarily have to have a Victory Garden in your backyard to can some stuff, farmers markets (and especially U-Pick farms) can provide the raw materials.
    I have one reservation, however. Folks who can have to be very careful not to can things improperly. A little too much mashing of the butternut squash, for example, and you've got a ticking bacterial time bomb. Compare the human error of thousands of people playing at proper preservation, versus the expertise of people that specialize in food preservation, and companies that get inspected by government agencies, etc. Canning centers where someone does it for you sound like a pretty good balance between the two.

    Another thing which would be important for getting more people cooking (and canning) in the kitchen is to focus on encouraging men to take part in it. The eatlocalchallenge website talks about how many more women started canning after the canning campaign during WWII. Indeed, many food writers often lament about the idealized time when mothers cooked for their families. This lament, however, shrouds a subtle sexism - why is the lament not that their dads didn't take it up when their moms got jobs outside the home? (Note: I'm not suggesting this of Marc.)
    Maybe we neeed something like "I'm a Man and I CAN!"

  2. Aimee says:

    Love your slogan. There are some inroads, I think, some entry-points for men who want to can and still be macho. Think of salsa. Think of Paul Newman's ruggedly handsome face on spaghetti sauce jars. As a woman who would welcome some help during preserving season (help, I'm drowning in strawberry jam!) I'll just put my two cents in: men in aprons are sexy.

  3. Food safety definitely needs to be at the forefront of any increase in home canning and preservation. There are many resources out there that have advice about proper technique (like this page from UC Davis). However, there are also plenty of on-line articles that recommend outdated preservation techniques too.

    The role of men and women in the WWII victory garden and home canning movement has been covered in depth in "Eating for Victory: Food Rationing and the Politics of Domesticity" by Amy Bentley. In general, the garden was for men (who weren't off at war) and the kitchen was for women.

    We have plenty of male celebrity chefs right now. Perhaps we also need some 'celebrity canners'? The subject could make an  excellent mini-series for the Food Network or PBS.  "Iron Chef jam," anyone?

  4. Beth De Voe says:

    My grandfather was a six foot four mountain of a man.  He knew how to box and could put a man down with one blow from his meaty fist.  He sired 13 kids and I can't image that his manhood was ever questioned.  He was known for miles for his garden and what he could coax from the ground.  It was a skill he brought from Ireland along with the ability to toss back a pint, without it, his kids would have grown hungry.  I have happy memories bouncing on his knee, along with three other cousins at the same time, eating tomatoes and cukes from his garden, the juice running down my chin.  May he rest in peace.