What Are Victory Gardens

Today’s episode is all about food rationing and victory gardens during WWI and WWII. Have you ever wondered what a victory garden is? During WWI and WWII, there were serious food shortages in Europe. Overnight a generation of farmers and producers were called into military service. Their fields and farms became battlefields. The food that was produced went to feed the soldiers and support the war effort. It was a tough time. 

The US government did their part by sending food to their allies and troops overseas. They asked citizens to do their part by reducing consumption on a number of different items. Food rationing was in full swing. The government pitched rationing as a heroic thing for citizens to do.

Food Rationing Leads to Victory Gardens

I have a cookbook from the early 1900s that is one of my favorites, Foods That Will Win The War: And How to Cook Them. The reason I love it so much is because it was war propaganda. World War I was in full swing when this cookbook was published in 1918. The intro shows fruits and veggies in abundance. It says:

“This is what God gives us. What are you giving so that others may live? Eat less wheat, meat, fats, sugar. Send more to Europe or they will starve.”

This book goes on to provide recipes for wheat, meat, fats and sugars, but it gets creative in the approach. It also gives an interesting snapshot into the household dietary life of WWI households. In the section on meat it talks about meat as red meat. It recommends scaling back meat dramatically and instead of having red meat twice a day, a household should find other substitutes. It then mentions chicken, fish, dairy products, nuts and beans as substitutes. 

Don’t Eat Sugar, Eat Corn Syrup Instead

In their section on sugarless desserts it is apparent they are speaking of refined granulated sugar. When I looked at the table of contents and saw that it had a section on sugarless desserts I was intrigued. What kind of desserts are there and can they possibly be good without sugar? My fears were laid to rest when I saw that everything was sweetened with molasses or.. drum roll… corn syrup!

This cookbook said, “Study attractive ways of serving food. Plain, cheap dishes can be made appetizing if they look attractive on the table.”

This book highlights the reality of war and what we were facing here at home. The truth is, people were starving in Europe. America was a land of seemingly endless resources and consumption. The simple ask was to scale back. Change how you are eating and you will save lives. 

During this time, the government had many campaigns to highlight the importance of food conservation and helping the public see that by cutting back on these necessities, they were directly contributing to the war effort. This leads me to victory gardens.

So What Are Victory Gardens?

A victory garden was a fruit, vegetable or herb garden that was planted on a private residence and public parks in the United States, Canada, Australia and Britain during WWI and WWII. These gardens provided food for the growers and relieved strain on the food supply. The idea was to make produce purchased by the government cheaper, allowing the government to pay less and use the money saved on other parts of the war effort. 

Victory Gardens also had a tremendous morale boost for those who participated. They gave the average citizen something they could do to contribute to the war effort. As a result they were rewarded with fresh, locally grown, produce. 

During WWII around one third of the vegetables produced in the United States was produced by victory gardens. By May of 1943, there were 18 million victory gardens in the US. 

Even the White House Got Involved

Even the White House got involved. Eleanor Roosevelt planted a victory garden on the White House lawn in 1943. This garden served as a reminder that it was a patriotic duty to garden. Even though this was pitched as a way for Americans to do their patriotic duty, many Americans surveyed said they did it for economic reasons. 54% of those polled said that they grew the garden for economic reasons. 20% mentioned their patriotic duty.

Some of the most popular home crops were cabbage, beets, beans, carrots, lettuce, peas, tomatoes, squash and turnips. Basically everything you might see in a home garden today. T

The Department of Agriculture was wary of this movement. However, they found a way to casually support the gardening movement by distributing informational pamphlets on basic gardening principles. These pamphlets taught the home farmer how to maximize their garden’s productivity. They taught them how to track the germination period of various seeds as well as looking out for insects and diseases they might encounter with their crop. The goal was to increase their yield year over year and to learn something while doing it.

Where We Are Today

Of the 18 million victory gardens started during WWI and WWII in the United States, only 2 are still around today. The Fenway Victory Gardens in Boston and the Dowling Community Garden in Minneapolis. 

This year we have seen a strain on the food system that we haven’t seen in a long long time. We all lived through it. Dried food and canned goods became hard to find. I remember walking through grocery stores and experience the frustration of empty shelf after empty shelf. This uncertainty at the grocery store sparked another home garden movement.

Nurseries and seed catalogs sold out. Youtube videos demonstrating home garden tips quickly became popular. People were embracing the home economy like never before. Social media was full of pictures of people’s sour dough starters. Fresh produce was brought into work and distributed freely. 

Now that the store shelves are restocked and we can all find toilet paper again, it will be interesting to see if these community gardens have staying power. Time will tell.

Perhaps the key to life is learning to live better on less. Going back to the cookbook I read from earlier. The close to that cookbook is how I’m going to close the show today. The cookbook closes with, “Of our men we ask their lives; of ourselves, a little less food.”

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What Are Victory Gardens: Hidden Heroes of WWII
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