A History of Victory Gardens

Victory gardens and civilian efforts to support their troops led to full dinner tables and a nation united.

| May/June 2017

“V” is for victory. During World War II, May 8 was VE-Day, the day victory was declared in Europe. However, for United States and British citizens during both world wars, “V” also stood for vegetable.

During both conflagrations, our troops needed to be fed, and everyday Americans supported them on the home front. Although there was no food rationing in the U.S. during WWI, slogans such as “Food Will Win the War,” “Meatless Meals,” and “Wheatless Wednesdays” encouraged citizens to cut back in order to aid the war effort. The concept of a “war garden” came from Charles Lathrop Pack, in 1917. His idea was that food production could be increased without expanding commercially cultivated land and without the need for additional agricultural labor. This was important given the number of farmers entering military service.

In the spring of 1942, months after the U.S. entered WWII, sugar was rationed. In order to purchase sugar, you needed a government voucher. By the end of the war, several other items were rationed. Every American could receive a ration book, which gave them the vouchers required to purchase coffee, meat, canned fish, canned milk, cheese, butter, and fats. And a point system limited the number of food items that could be purchased. While food was being rationed, families sometimes had to get creative with what ingredients they had.

Magazines and publications ran recipes that featured sweeteners other than sugar, and oleo instead of butter. My mother, who lived with her parents on an Iowa farm during WWII, recalls eating immature field corn — before the kernels hardened — as a way of stretching their food supply. The Kraft corporation’s boxed macaroni and cheese, then labeled Kraft Dinner, became popular among households who were used to having meat for dinner. Two boxes could be obtained for only one ration point (in addition to the cost). Many other nonfood items, such as gasoline and tires, were also rationed, and the nation pulled together to support the war effort and troops fighting overseas.

During both world wars, the government urged citizens to plant war gardens, later coined “victory gardens,” and other countries, including Canada, endorsed war gardens. Victory gardens helped our nation during wartime in many ways. Vegetables grown at home freed up commercially grown vegetables to be shipped to those fighting in Europe or in the Pacific. It reduced the need to truck produce from farms to supermarkets, therefore reducing fuel consumption, saving on rubber tires, and allowing some transport vehicles to be pressed into military service. And the gardens were a morale booster, giving civilians something positive to contribute to support our troops and to feel involved.

Scope and success

Americans responded, partly out of patriotism and partly for practical reasons. Some 20 million American gardens were sown under “the seeds of victory” campaign by the end of WWII. This exceeded expectations of 6 million country gardens and 12 million city and suburban gardens the government had hoped to achieve. Eleanor Roosevelt, despite protests from the Department of Agriculture, even planted a victory garden on the White House lawn.

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