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What’s Old Is New Again

November 29, 2013

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARoof top gardens. Urban gardens. I read so many comments – and some demands – that Americans spread this new and growing idea. So it was with much interest I read a section in the book Bullets and Bread

Victory gardens worked in World War One and they returned with a vengeance in World War Two. During the depression similar efforts were known as relief gardens. The depression era garden was geared towards food relief for the poor. It was more o an individual or family type activity. Whatever the title, the World War Two version was backed by both a commercial and governmental marketing and public relations campaign that tied the gardens to victory in the minds of the public. The ability for many “city” dwellers to successfully plant Victory Gardens to supplement their own pantries helped relieve pressures on food supplies. Victory Gardens were planted everywhere. The call for Americans  to plant a Victory Garden in order to help the war effort was answered by nearly 20 million Americans. The gardens were no longer for the poor or limited to a single family or person. It seemed everyone was involved. Eleanor Roosevelt even had a Victory Garden on the White House grounds.

This doesn’t sound that unlike today, although few would likely do it for the war effort. I looked at the population statistic from 1941 and found it was 133,402,471 – so it seems then that 60 million people would have to participate in order to be at the same level. But it created more questions. If that was such an ideal system, why was it abandoned? Many who say we should eat like Grandma ate – these were the actions of those grandmothers.

Official pamphlets, newspapers and magazines ran informative pieces about how to make a Victory Garden work. Topics included seed selection, planting, keeping insects and animals out of a garden, harvesting, how to involve children and how to combine your efforts with your neighbors. Families were also encouraged to can their own vegetables and to combine efforts with family, friends and neighbors to produce food for everyone. The sale of pressure cookers used in home canning skyrocketed. Combined Victory Garden Cooperatives were started. Victory Gardens appeared in empty lots, backyards, on rooftops, in planters, and just about anywhere something could be grown. The US Department of Agriculture estimated that the 20 million Victory Gardens that were planted produced 9-10 million tons of food. This was food that would have come from commercial sources which was now needed for the war effort. This was about 44% of the total amount grown.

This sounds like a utopian existence – one that would replace the need for buying not just from the store but from places like ours. Why wasn’t it continued? Why leave behind the utopia of food in the cities, grown in the cities.

While the wartime efforts in raising awareness about homegrown food sources was incredibly successful in Allied Countries the message was lost when the war ended. As the war ended so did the majority of the government promotions of the gardens. As a result, many people in the United States, Canada and England did not replant Victory Gardens in the spring of 1946. The message to do so was not there, the war had been won and the extra capacity was not needed to send food overseas for the troops which were now returning home in massive numbers. The problem was that production had not yet fully switched from supplying the war effort back to production for grocery stores and consumer foods. Several food shortages occurred at the market place on many items. Thankfully part of the overall message about Victory Gardens included saving and canning. So many people turned to their war time stocks of canned food. Eventually the production was able to catch back up with demands as more and more industries switched back to peace time production.
Another factor in the lack of Victory Gardens planted in 1946 was the fact that many were built on loaned property, vacant lots and donated space in parks or on private property. As the war ended most control of private and civic property used for public victory gardens returned to the property owner. This left the majority of any remaining gardens relegated to those found in residential back yards.

Maintaining that ‘progress’ wasn’t done. It was time consuming. For many today, with both parents working outside the home, the majority just won’t take the time. Many forget – or didn’t know – there was shortages at that time also. Now we have an abundance of food and it’s a bad thing.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’ll pick this up again from time to time – but take a look at the book and think about the reality of the era that so many seem to hold up as a better time. I think our grandparents would choose not worrying about food, survival, safety. A big problem was food spoiling before it got to the soldiers. Bugs in breads. They ate it anyway. They ate rabbit, mutton, horse and weren’t picky about it. This is an awesome “eye witness” account that will serve to make us all appreciative not only for what they went through, but how good we have it now.

In the end, today it’s about food choices. But some food for thought (literally!) for those who weren’t around in the 1940s – from those who were.

Time changes much, but doesn’t change the facts.


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