Food for Fighting

Library of Virginia

Food Conservation During World War I

Food shortages in Europe caused desperation among the Allied nations. Prior to the U.S. entry into the war, the U.S. became the largest provider of food relief aid. President Woodrow Wilson created and appointed Herbert Hoover head of the U.S. Food Administration on August 10, 1917, four months after the United States entered the war. Hoover believed that food was "second only to military action" during the war. 

Before the U.S. entered WWI, Hoover played an integral role in the Commission for Relief in Belgium. Occupied by Germany and under British blockade, a solution was needed to feed the Belgian people. Hoover negotiated with Britain and Germany to allow food relief.

Appeals to the compassion and generosity of the American people were evident in posters like this which showed starving women and children.

This video looks at the legacy of Hoover's Commission for Relief in Belgium.

Rather than imposing forced rationing during WWI, the U.S. Food Administration used poster art as propaganda to encourage food conservation, substitution, and augmentation. These efforts provided the U.S. troops and Allies with the necessary sustenance for combat. Voluntary food rationing became a sign a patriotism and changed the eating habits of the American people.

Twenty million Americans signed food pledges to the U.S. Food Administration.

Americans were encouraged to eat less meat, eggs, wheat, and sugar. Wheat was easier to ship, which is why Americans were asked to eat other grains and starches. Food shipments to Europe doubled within a year.

This video provides a look at WWI field rations, and even shows a taste test!

What was the food actually like at the front? This video from The Great War gives some answers.

Charitable organizations such as the Salvation Army and Y.M.C.A. provided a taste of home to those fighting in the trenches.

American consumed an estimated 85 pounds of sugar per person in 1916. This was more than double the British, who consumed an estimated 40 pounds per person. During the war, Americans were encouraged to substitute fruit, honey, and molasses in place in sugar. Reducing the consumption of sugar was important to free ships for the transport of troops and supplies.

Candy was an essential part of the soldiers rations as it provided quick energy on the front.

Many chocolate manufacturers switched to coconut candy as it required less sugar to sweeten.

Supplies like wheat, sugar, and oil were used to make doughnuts by the Salvation Army. Doughboys and Lassies became symbols of the war.

With food supplies needed overseas, Americans were encouraged to grow their own vegetables and keep chickens and pigs for eggs and meat. President Wilson even allowed sheep to graze on the White House lawn. Self-reliance was touted as an American virtue and the first self-service supermarket, Piggly Wiggly, was opened in 1916 as a response to the short-supply of able-bodied men available to work in the traditional grocery stores. In addition to food savings pledges, growing "Victory Gardens" was a personal badge of pride. Meatless Mondays, eating local, eating more fruits and vegetables are all ways WWI changed the way Americans eat.

Local grocers used to employ many men to fetch, ring up, and deliver groceries. With the advent of the supermarket, customers took on these tasks and enjoyed lower prices as a result.

Americans were told their gardening efforts to feed themselves allowed commercially grown produce to feed the troops and, in essence, help win the war.

People of all ages were encouraged not to waste food. The "clean plate club" was a reminder not to take more than you needed.

Americans adopted Meatless Mondays and Wheatless Wednesdays to reduce their consumption of these vital products.

Colorful and catchy U.S. Food Administration posters reinforced the idea that food itself was the only way we would have the strength to win the war.

Herbert Hoover's contributions to the Belgian food relief and the U.S. Food Administration earned him the name of "The Great Humanitarian." The food discipline exercised by the American public during World War I would prove essential during the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression, and World War II. We see the legacy of the food conservation efforts today through the field of nutritional science, the food pyramid, and campaigns to "eat local." Food allowed every American to take part in the war effort in some way.
Credits: Story

Research, text, and arrangement by Dana Puga, Prints and Photographs Collection Specialist, Manuscripts & Special Collections Department. Editing and assistance from Sonya Coleman, Digital Collections Specialist.

Imaging by Ben Steck, Photo & Digital Imaging Services Department.

Images from the Visual Studies Collection, Manuscripts & Special Collections, Library of Virginia.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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