In 1917, the United States was in the midst of a food crisis. American farmers had seen poor harvests in 1916 and again in 1917. In addition, the war had created a huge demand for food exports to Britain and France, creating shortages and rapidly increasing prices. Between 1914 and 1917, food prices rose by 82 percent. Rather than increase the powers of the Department of Agriculture, President Wilson responded to the situation by drafting a measure to implement a new agency with the power to confront issues of hoarding, inflation, and shortages. The Lever Food and Fuel Act was passed on August 10, 1917, establishing the U.S. Food Administration (FA). Not only would this agency make a significant contribution to the war effort by encouraging and controlling food production, it subsequently changed the American diet and how the American public thought about food.
President Wilson appointed Herbert Hoover as food administrator in May of 1917 after Congress’ initial delay in passing the bill. Hoover had overseen the distribution of millions of dollars’ worth of foodstuffs sent from America to Belgium through a voluntary organization—a success he had accomplished out of a makeshift office in London. For three months, before legislation was passed in Congress, the Food Administration functioned as a volunteer committee. This allowed Hoover to concentrate on building the campaign for voluntary restriction of food consumption that would become the cornerstone of the FA’s strategy. It was with persuasion, not force, that the FA would cut America’s consumption of white wheat flour, meat, sugar, and butter.
Hoover recruited a talented group of employees and volunteers, including a number of home economists and reformers influenced by the ideas of the New Nutrition. At the time, most Americans were unaware of the concept of the food calorie or that different types of food produced different amounts of energy—concepts discovered and studied by American chemist Wilbur Olin Atwater. Atwater stressed the importance of a cheap and efficient diet that included more proteins, beans, and vegetables in place of carbohydrates. These concepts were the bedrock of the FA’s primary strategy: to teach Americans about the interchangeability of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates in an effort to push people towards consuming beans rather than meat and oats, grains and cornmeal instead of wheat. This was combined with an appeal to reduce “waste” and to find creative ways to use leftovers.
To achieve their goals, the FA borrowed tactics from the prohibition movement and the fledgling advertising industry—it used the idea of the “pledge,” encouraging housewives to sign cards pledging to obey the rules set by the Food Administrator and sent orators to women’s clubs around the nation to arouse enthusiasm for the campaign. The FA also learned the importance of slogans and visual propaganda. Using the slogan “Food will win the war,” the FA urged the American public to conserve food supplies and observe “wheatless,” “meatless,” and “porkless” days. Other slogans used in FA posters included “Save the Products of the Land,” “Eat More Corn, Oats and Rye Products,” “Can Vegetables, Fruit, and the Kaiser,” “Sugar Means Ships,” and “Blood or Bread.”
In an effort to win over the country’s 5 million foreign born residents who felt a working-class indifference to the campaign, the FA established a Vernacular Press Division, which produced several posters in different languages, including “You Came Here Seeking Freedom. You Must Now Help Preserve It—Waste Nothing” written in Yiddish.
The impressive success of the Food Administration was based on the ability to enlist the aid of some 750,000 volunteers in local committees and organizations to get behind the effort, which in turn produced social pressure. Although the impact was felt mainly by the middle and upper classes, the wartime campaigns to save sugars, fats, and wheat, taught millions of Americans about the basics of nutrition.
Eliminated in 1919, the Food Administration was one of the greatest successes of World War I and helped make Herbert Hoover a household name.
Wynn, Neil Alan. The Home Front Encyclopedia: United States, Britain, and Canada in World Wars I and II. Santa Barbara, ABC-CLIO Inc., 2007.
Levestein, Harvey A., Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet, New York: Oxford University Press, 1988, 137.