If Rose Hayden-Smith sees a big enough surge in gardening to call it a revolution, I’m going with it. She’s a historian specializing in food policy and the U.S. “homefront” era and I had the pleasure of hearing her talk about victory garden history at the U.S. Botanic Garden. She and the other Food and Society Fellows were in DC for a food policy conference, and counted visiting Michelle Obama’s kitchen garden as a highlight (sadly, no photos allowed!) Here’s her report (“It’s all a blur!”)
Turns out we don’t know much about the history of Victory Gardens, usually confusing World Wars I and II (I know, ancient history). Tidbits I love: President Wilson declared: “Food will win the war.” Herbert Hoover, as President Wilson’s “food administrator”, encouraged local food production and consumption to reduce food miles (that being a much-used term even back then). Victory Garden posters used slogans like “Uncle Sam says Garden,” “School Garden Army,” “A Garden for Every Child” and “Exempt No Land”.
But my take-away was the breadth and depth of government action promoting the home growing of food, which resulted in 40% percent of American production being homegrown. Every community had a “foodshed coordinator” who worked to make sure
the right types of food were planted, all coordinated in a big-picture
way. By 1943 there was a national program for school, home, workplace
AND community gardens, and three-fifths of all Americans grew edibles. Wow.
So why did Americans stop growing food, Rose? The highway system, technological improvements, advertising, and the federal lunch program. Gardening came to be perceived as a “hick thing to do.” We bought into the culture of lawn-and-ornamentals. (Rose said it’s great to see “lawns becoming out” – we hear ya.)
So what’s the evidence of this “gardening revolution” Rose declared? Encouraging survey results, of course, plus the impact of our First Lady and her team. But Rose also met with folks at the USDA while she was in town and left convinced that next year the feds will implement a “national gardening initiative”, something she’s campaigning for. And just last week the USDA launched their “Know your farmer, know your food” campaign. (Awesome government website!)
Victory Garden poster care of the Library of Congress.