Even though it was the first time the US got involved in a global conflict overseas, World War I wasn’t really a big deal in the grand scheme of American history. World War I veteran Ernest Hemingway may have written about the “lost generation” who lived through it, and while America played a large role in ending the conflict, they were only involved in it towards its tail-end. While the “Great War” was hands-down the most destructive and wide-reaching conflict up to that point, and referred to as “the war to end all wars”, its most notable historical significance is setting the stage for World War II, which proved to be both more historically and culturally influential. But that’s not to understate its significance. In Russia, it helped bring about the Communist Revolution. As the first global conflict where Canada, New Zealand, and my native Australia were major players, it was essential in shaping the national identity of these British dominions. And, according to one article I read, it even helped change the way that Americans eat.
As young American men fought in the trenches of France, housewives across the country were also called upon to do their duty and keep down food waste to ensure that American boys could be fed. These calls to culinary action were documented in propaganda during the birth of modern advertising. At this time, both rural and urban Americans had access to plenty more food than those across the sea. For example, ready access to meat helped shape the traditional dishes of immigrant groups such as the Jews and Italians. When the conflict began in 1914, the US were the main suppliers of food relief aid. Yet when the US actually entered the war in 1917, that infrastructure changed, with the primary concern being feeding American troops well. The daily rations of an American soldiers were up to 5,000 calories, 20% more than French or British soldiers, and even more than the Germans. Much of this food came directly from the US.
President Wilson created the US Food Administration (USFA) to manage food reserves for the allies, and put future President Herbert Hoover in charge. A large part of this organization’s goals involved changing the food habits of the average American. At this time, Wilson created the Committee On Public Information (CPI), which churned out propaganda, produced press releases, created ads, and coordinated some 75,000 public speakers who gave lectures throughout the country. The CPI discussed a variety of issues, but one of their main focuses was food. They coaxed people into conserving food instead of using forced rationing, which they thought would hurt morale. With many traditional foods became harder to come by, propaganda even suggested food substitutes, a novel concept. Crisco oil, for example, replaced traditional lard, while domestic honey or syrup replaced sugar. This created a demand for new products that local markets traditionally didn’t stock, which gave way to self-service “supermarkets” that could offer a diversity of food at lower prices. Even local food production took off, with people growing vegetable gardens in their backyards.
When World War I ended in 1918, the USFA and CPI disbanded. However, their lessons remained, proving prudent after the Great Depression and Dust Bowl hit in the 1930s led to a food shortage, and America’s entry into another global conflict, World War II. Such concepts weren’t as pressing in the boom years following the latter conflict, but with the recent move towards sustainability, ideas such as not wasting food, supporting local agriculture, and eating alternative proteins, have caught on just as strongly as they did 100 years ago. History, as the saying goes, repeats itself.