How Uncle Sam Helps Define America's Diet

  • To "skim the earth in search of things good for man" is how Frank Meyer described his work as an agricultural explorer.
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    To "skim the earth in search of things good for man" is how Frank Meyer described his work as an agricultural explorer.
    National Archives, Records of the Bureau of Plant Industry, Soils, and Agricultural Engineering
  • The black dots on this map of Asia show where Meyer searched for plants between November 1909 and November 1911.
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    The black dots on this map of Asia show where Meyer searched for plants between November 1909 and November 1911.
    National Archives, Bureau of Plant Industry, Soils, and Agricultural Engineering
  • Theodore Roosevelt replants a Bahia orange tree in 1903 in Riverside, Calif.  The tree, one of two sent to the U.S. from Brazil, helped give birth to California's orange industry.
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    Theodore Roosevelt replants a Bahia orange tree in 1903 in Riverside, Calif. The tree, one of two sent to the U.S. from Brazil, helped give birth to California's orange industry.
    National Archives, Records of the Bureau of Plant Industry, Soils, and Agricultural Engineering
  • Dr. Harvey Wiley, first commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, works in his lab in 1906. Wiley enlisted volunteers to test his theory that chemicals and other food additives are dangerous to human health.
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    Dr. Harvey Wiley, first commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, works in his lab in 1906. Wiley enlisted volunteers to test his theory that chemicals and other food additives are dangerous to human health.
    Courtesy of the Washingtoniana Division, D.C. Public Library
  • Wiley recorded his subjects' headaches, nausea and vomiting in tables, which held data about their responses to substances like boric acid and formaldehyde. Although there was no official follow-up, anecdotal reports suggest that none of the volunteers suffered any long-term harm.
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    Wiley recorded his subjects' headaches, nausea and vomiting in tables, which held data about their responses to substances like boric acid and formaldehyde. Although there was no official follow-up, anecdotal reports suggest that none of the volunteers suffered any long-term harm.
    National Archives, Records of the Food and Drug Administration
  • This drawing illustrates the dangers of ketchup in the mid-19th century. "Catsup" was prepared from the refuse of canneries: tomato skins, cores, peels, and sometimes rotten tomatoes. Fermentation often caused the bottles to explode.
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    This drawing illustrates the dangers of ketchup in the mid-19th century. "Catsup" was prepared from the refuse of canneries: tomato skins, cores, peels, and sometimes rotten tomatoes. Fermentation often caused the bottles to explode.
    Courtesy of the FDA History Office
  • With canned goods in short supply during World War I and II, people ate more fresh fruit and vegetables — many from their own back yards. It has been estimated that 40 percent of the fresh produce consumed during World War II was homegrown.
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    With canned goods in short supply during World War I and II, people ate more fresh fruit and vegetables — many from their own back yards. It has been estimated that 40 percent of the fresh produce consumed during World War II was homegrown.
    National Archives, Publications of the U.S. Government
  • This Great Depression-era poster from the U.S. Department of Agriculture illustrated the 100 calorie measurements of familiar foods. The goal of counting calories was to ensure that people got enough, rather than to prevent overeating.
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    This Great Depression-era poster from the U.S. Department of Agriculture illustrated the 100 calorie measurements of familiar foods. The goal of counting calories was to ensure that people got enough, rather than to prevent overeating.
    National Archives, Records of the Office of Education
  • In the 1930s, "plow up" and "kill" methods were used to dispose of surplus farm products. The decision to feed hungry schoolchildren with that surplus was made after the public outcry over the government's slaughter of 6 million baby pigs.
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    In the 1930s, "plow up" and "kill" methods were used to dispose of surplus farm products. The decision to feed hungry schoolchildren with that surplus was made after the public outcry over the government's slaughter of 6 million baby pigs.
    National Archives, Records of the Office of Government Reports
  • Early on, school lunch was a child welfare program. Later it became a matter of national security. Malnourished children did not grow up to be good soldiers. In 1943, the War Food Administration took over the federal school lunch program.
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    Early on, school lunch was a child welfare program. Later it became a matter of national security. Malnourished children did not grow up to be good soldiers. In 1943, the War Food Administration took over the federal school lunch program.
    National Archives, Records of the Office of Government Reports

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First Lady Michelle Obama received a lot of attention for her vegetable garden on the South Lawn of the White House. The garden, which provides vegetables both for the first family and for state dinners, was also meant to provide Americans with an example of how to eat more healthfully.

As it turns out, Washington has a long tradition of trying to guide the American diet, going back over 200 years. Founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin brought plants like rice and olives from their missions abroad to see how they would fare in their own country.

Later, the Department of Agriculture sent "agricultural explorers" to remote parts of the world to find plants that would do well in the U.S. Those explorers often ventured to dangerous places and had to deal with threats from extreme weather, wild animals and hostile locals. One of the most famous of these explorers was Frank Meyer, one of whose discoveries — the Meyer lemon — is named for him.

Documentation of these expeditions is housed in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and is part of a new exhibit called "What's Cooking, Uncle Sam? The Government's Effect on the American Diet."

Two government nutritionists explain the merits of their dairy dessert. One of the few science jobs available to women in the 1950s was in the field of home economics. i i

Two government nutritionists explain the merits of their dairy dessert. One of the few science jobs available to women in the 1950s was in the field of home economics. National Archives, Records of the Extension Service hide caption

itoggle caption National Archives, Records of the Extension Service
Two government nutritionists explain the merits of their dairy dessert. One of the few science jobs available to women in the 1950s was in the field of home economics.

Two government nutritionists explain the merits of their dairy dessert. One of the few science jobs available to women in the 1950s was in the field of home economics.

National Archives, Records of the Extension Service

NPR's Renee Montagne met with the exhibit's head curator, Alice Kamps. Kamps explains that while people might not think of food as part of American history, the Archives have extensive records on that subject.

"Anything that touches our lives is represented here," she says. "Food, of course, is a very basic, everyday kind of thing, and government's been involved in it since there's been a government."

One of the most popular programs created by the federal government began in the 1920s and took advantage of a new technology at the time — the radio. The Department of Agriculture produced one of the earliest radio shows, which was called "Aunt Sammy" — the wife of Uncle Sam. The program was aimed largely at farm wives and provided recipes and cooking tips.

The government also sought to provide nutritional information to the American public. One 1930s-era poster in the exhibit illustrates 100-calorie portions of familiar foods. A hundred calories was equal to a pound of tomatoes or three large prunes or a bowl of cereal.

The concept isn't unfamiliar — consumers today can find 100-calorie packages of snacks on supermarket shelves. But, as Kamps points out, the goal of enumerating calories was completely different back then.

"The focus then was getting enough calories," she explains. "This was during the Great Depression. Unlike now, where we're counting calories to keep them down, they were counting calories to get enough."

There are seven food groups listed in this 1943 USDA nutrition chart. Americans were encouraged to eat well as part of their patriotic duty to stay strong during wartime. i i

There are seven food groups listed in this 1943 USDA nutrition chart. Americans were encouraged to eat well as part of their patriotic duty to stay strong during wartime. U.S. National Archives, Records of the Office of Government Reports hide caption

itoggle caption U.S. National Archives, Records of the Office of Government Reports
There are seven food groups listed in this 1943 USDA nutrition chart. Americans were encouraged to eat well as part of their patriotic duty to stay strong during wartime.

There are seven food groups listed in this 1943 USDA nutrition chart. Americans were encouraged to eat well as part of their patriotic duty to stay strong during wartime.

U.S. National Archives, Records of the Office of Government Reports

In addition to making sure Americans were getting enough food, the federal government was looking to protect Americans from contaminated food. Many food and drug laws came about in the early 20th century. One pioneer in food safety was Harvey Wiley, a chemist with the Department of Agriculture.

Wiley was convinced that many of the substances that were added to foods — preservatives and dyes, for example — were dangerous. But he needed evidence of this, so he decided to test these substances on humans. In 1903, he began an experiment he called the hygienic table.

"He enlisted a number of young men, volunteers, to take all of their meals in the basement of the Department of Agriculture," Kamps says. "They outfitted this room with white tablecloths, they had waiters, they hired a chef, so the meals were very carefully prepared. But then these chemical substances were added to them, like formaldehyde and boric acid."

Wiley kept notes and tables of the effects the meals had on his volunteers. Often, they became violently ill. One note reads: "No. 5 was nauseated and sick during the night of February 1 and vomited all of his dinner. He did not eat breakfast on February 2."

Wiley's experiment attracted a tremendous amount of attention from the press, which dubbed his team of young volunteers "The Poison Squad." But the notoriety helped his cause, because people became aware of the dangers of these substances, which went a long way in helping pass the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906.

That law made it illegal to ship or receive any adulterated or misbranded foods, like ketchup. The condiment was one of the first convenience foods that had commercial success. But during the mid-1800s, it was sometimes prepared from the refuse of canneries. Tomato skins, cores, peels and sometimes rotten tomatoes went into this product. And once it was bottled, the bacteria often caused the containers to explode.

Along with information on the government's role in regulating the food industry, the exhibit provides records of other programs, such as war rationing, school lunches, and the oh-so-familiar (and now obsolete) food pyramid.

"What's Cooking, Uncle Sam? The Government's Effect on the American Diet" opens at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., on June 10 and runs through Jan. 3.

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