What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam? is based on a 2011 exhibition at the National Archives Museum in Washington, DC. This eclectic assortment of National Archives records have one thing in common: they were produced in the course of government efforts to ensure that Americans enjoy an ample, safe, and nutritious diet. Spanning the Revolutionary War to the late 1900s, these records echo many of our current concerns about government's role in the health and safety of our food supply.
From local 4-H programs to omnibus farm bills, a wide variety of government activities influence what American farmers grow, how they grow it, and how much they earn selling it.
Free Seeds For Farmers
The Government’s first official effort to improve American agriculture was through seed distribution. In 1839, Congress appropriated $1,000 to the Patent Office to distribute seeds to farmers through their congressional representatives.
Foreign Plant Exploration
The Department of Agriculture sent plant hunters to the far reaches of the earth in search of food plants. Beginning in the mid 1800s, these adventurers sought specimens with genetic traits to breed plants resistant to disease and able to weather America’s diverse climates. Agricultural explorers introduced thousands of plants. From mangoes to Meyer lemons, and pomegranates to pistachios, many of the foods now grown in the Unites States sprouted from seeds and shoots gathered on their expeditions.
Testing and Teaching
The Hatch Act of 1887 stipulated that states receive Federal land grants to establish agricultural experiment stations—research centers dedicated to finding solutions and improving methods in agriculture and food production. These agricultural experiment stations shared their discoveries with farmers through education programs.
Crimes Against Butter
Congress responded to the demands of dairy farmers for protection against butter substitutes with the Margarine Act of 1886—raising margarine’s price through taxes and licensing.
The First Farm Policy
The Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) was one of the first pieces of legislation Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced after his election in 1933. For the first time, Congress took on the responsibility of balancing supply and demand so that farmers could make a profit.
Food Will Win the War
With the world at war in the 1940s, farmers were rallied to feed troops, civilians, and overseas allies. They were prodded to grown more corn, soybeans, and sugar beets. These crops were used not only for food but in the production of explosives and munitions.
The growing array of convenience foods like ketchup and canned meats available to Americans during the Industrial Revolution introduced new dangers into the household.
The mid to late 19th century was an age of suspiciously green peas, deadly candy, and perfumed meat. Chemical additives were commonly used to preserve foods or disguise foods already spoiled, but food labels rarely reported more than the name and manufacturer of the product. Without a regulating body, the industry was free to use any substance it chose to color, disguise, or prolong the freshness of products.
Standard Pekoe and Regulation Oolong
At the time the Tea Inspection Act was passed in 1882, a substantial amount of the tea exported to America was adulterated to increase its weight and to disguise inferiority. Although tea was not the only—or the worst—threat to the health and safety of consumers, it was the easiest to control. Congress already had the power to regulate imports, the source of most of the tea brewed in America.
The Food Police
President Theodore Roosevelt signed both the Pure Food and Drugs Act and the Meat Inspection Act on June 30, 1906. Afterward, the Federal Government found itself in the business of protecting Americans from unsafe steak, misbranded mushrooms, and tainted tomatoes. Many food labels began to proclaim the purity of their products.
In his crusade to improve the nutritional quality of meals produced in American kitchens, Uncle Sam has funded groundbreaking research, deployed an army of home economists, and plastered public spaces with pie charts and pyramids.
Nutrition: Breaking It Down
Wilbur Olin Atwater was one of the first Americans to undertake scientific human nutrition studies. Using a respiration calorimeter, he quantified the energy values (calories) of different types of food. His discoveries formed the basis of today’s knowledge of nutrition. Home economists translated his findings into the first government food guides.
Trading Aprons For Lab Coats
The Cooperative Extension Service of the USDA, established in 1908, helped elevate home economics to a field of study by employing home economists and publishing their research. The movement’s scientific approach to food and application of business principles to the home changed the way Americans eat.
Eating for Uncle Sam
To “Keep America Strong,” Government ramped up nutrition education efforts during World Wars I and II. Posters suggested protein substitutes for meat and promoted home gardens to supply fresh fruits and vegetables.
The most direct way the Government affects what Americans eat is by cooking for them. There are three groups of Americans routinely called to Uncle Sam’s table: soldiers, school children, and Presidents. Many eating habits have been altered as a result.
Square Meals for Soldiers
The military is one group that is regularly subjected to Uncle Sam’s cooking. Beginning in the 1940s, dieticians standardized military menus—carefully calculating nutritional content and scouring out all but the most familiar and popular dishes. Although World War II soldiers routinely complained about the “chow,” many picked up eating habits in mess halls. Soldiers from a variety of regions and ethnic groups became accustomed to “square meals” served on divided trays. Meat and potatoes washed down with a tall glass of milk came to mean “dinner” to millions of soldiers—an expectation they carried home to their families.
Reading, Writing, and Rigatoni
Uncle Sam has touched more taste buds through the school lunch program than any other effort. Three billion school meals were served to 19 million children in 1946 when President Harry Truman signed the National School Lunch Act. Under the USDA, the program’s dual goals of feeding hungry children nutritious food and supporting farmers have sometimes conflicted. Passionate public outcry has met attempts to eliminate or cut program costs. The school lunch program is one of the most popular social welfare programs in our nation’s history.
The Presidential Palate
The contents of the President’s refrigerator have long been a source of fascination for the American people. While most don’t change eating habits each inaugural season, some do adopt Presidential favorites. Countless citizens have written to the White House requesting recipes. The tastes of Presidents have ranged from the simple to the gourmet. They have hired or inherited cooks with experience ranging from world-class chef to army quartermaster. Regardless of the President’s tastes, “what’s cooking” at the White House is a popular and well-documented subject.
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National Archives Museum — National Archives, Washington, DC
With Generous Support From — National Archives Foundation, the Lawrence F. O'Brien Family and Mars Corporation
Curator — Alice D. Kamps