Monday, June 13, 2011

What's Cooking, Uncle Sam?

I just went to the new "What's Cooking, Uncle Sam?" exhibit at the National Archives. It tells the history of the government's role in U.S. food and agriculture -  a story of market protectionism, social engineering and the regulated tension between the aspirations of business and the demands of the people...

It was striking how much of what was old is new again. One of the earliest priorities of government leaders was to stock their "new" continent with as diverse of seed as possible. They not only promoted the adoption of proven Amerindian crops, but encouraged immigrants to bring their own favorite seeds with them and even sponsored botanical expeditions to the far corners of the world to discover potential new crops. Thomas Jefferson (who is quoted on the sidebar of this blog) went so far as to smuggle rice seed out of Italy in his pockets - a crime punishable by death!

The young U.S. government not only encouraged the use of diverse, locally appropriate seed but actually provided it to farmers. For years, farmers spurned much of the offerings of the young seed industry due to the reliably superior quality of government seeds.* In what would become a recurring theme, the beleaguered seed industry formed a trade association and successfully lobbied the government to leave seed production to them.**

As the U.S. matured from a rural frontier to an industrial power, the people slowly developed an appreciation for what regulation could do for them (which is a good reminder for all of us from time to time). The Jungle was written to reveal the exploitative working conditions of industrial food processing factories, but the public's outrage (to Sinclair's frustration) was consumed by the disgusting revelation of what was going into their dinners. It gave me a new appreciation for the FDA to hear some of the early practices they were tasked with addressing - including chemical adulteration that made exploding ketchup bottles and child deaths from candy consumption common.*** As was also a recurring theme, food processing businesses protested these new regulations full-throated, but the overwhelming demands of the people eventually held the final say.

Along the way, the government kept working to educate farmers and the public on best practices to profitably produce and safely consume the nation's food, mediating conflicts between the two, and nudging both towards behaviors that were in everyone's interest. Government efforts in social engineering include rationing during the World Wars ("Meatless Mondays" was invented by the Hoover administration), promotion of home gardening and canning (which I believe was at one point responsible for 40 % of all produce consumed by the public), the establishment of the classic American meal of affordably nutritious potatoes + meat + vegetables, the now-infamous ag subsidies and the school lunch program.

Much of the exhibit was dedicated to the always-evolving efforts of the government to keep its people healthy - from early efforts to ensure that everyone had affordable access to basic nutrition, to burgeoning biochemical understanding of the nutrient components of food (and a seeming "vitamin" craze) to the recognition of obesity as a serious health threat. It was illuminating to walk these displays with my nutrition/social science gf, who explained where and how some education efforts succeeded and others failed.

D wasn't the first vitamin to be accused of causing widespread deficiency-induced malaise. A pet theory that Americans were in need of more thiamine (vitamin B1) led to the fad of donuts as health food (as they apparently contained a fair amount of it). In this case, the FDA stepped in - allowing advertisement of "enriched wheat donuts," but not "enriched donuts" or "vitamin donuts." If I remember correctly, it was this passing emphasis on the biochemistry of food that inspired the now ubiquitous FDA "Nutrition Facts" label.

I balked at the American public's repeated gullibility in the face of health claims in food marketing (from "vitamin" donuts to "whole grain" sugary breakfast cereals), but gf pointed out that nutrition science is inherently complex, frequently changes and has generally been poorly distilled into simple to understand and follow messages. It's no wonder that the public is quick to grab products that associate themselves with whatever is seen as healthy at the moment (apparently even green packages are associated with healthiness). She contrasted our complex nutrition education materials (e.g. the terrible interactive food pyramid website) with simple public health education campaigns (e.g. wash your hands to prevent the flu, use clean needles and condoms to prevent HIV).

I asked her to give an example of what she thought nutrition education materials should look like. She re-emphasized that it had to be targeted to the needs, education and attitudes of each given demographic, but that, for example, the core message for many children might be: "exercise a lot more, drink water instead of sugary drinks." I was encouraged to hear that many on-the-ground nutrition educators already take this approach. She thought the new USDA Food Plate was a step in the right direction as it's simple and works at the level of a meal (most people don't have a good idea of everything they eat in a day or a week, and certainly don't understand how much a "serving" is).

I definitely recommend checking out the preview on the website, and stopping in if you're in the area. I just wish it was a lot bigger! In conclusion, I'll leave you with a quote from one of the displays that I couldn't resist (and an unrelated poster advertising an early farmer education campaign).

"Many urbanites held on to the agrarian myth—the belief that the family farm stood for all that is pure and good in America—but demanded the cheap food that large agribusiness could supply."

* If you know more about this program, I'd love to hear it!
** Later, dairy farmers united to compel the government to impose massive taxes on margarine butter substitutes. People were thrown in federal prison for breaking these draconian "oleomargarine laws." Eventually, the added expense of these taxes was repealed under increasing protests from the public.
*** Ketchup was invented as both a shortcut for busy home cooks and a way to use the dregs of tomato harvests (e.g. cores and skins) - made edible with vinegar, red dye and preservatives that built pressure within the containers. According to this exhibit, Heinz was the first to demonstrate that ketchup could be made without these bottle-busting chemicals.


  1. Wow. that is an absolutely incredible story. Thanks for posting it!

  2. Re: "the public is quick to grab products that associate themselves with whatever is seen as healthy at the moment"

    But only if those products are what they want to eat in the first place. Everyone knows vegetables are just about the most healthful thing going, but there's not a mad rush for green beans. It's when the health claims are made for exactly the kinds of foods you mention here -- donuts, sugary cereals, and things like fruity drinks, vegetable chips, low-fat baked goods -- that those claims get heeded. It's innately human to look for reasons to eat what you want to eat in the first place.

  3. Yeah, that's definitely part of it - though I don't know to what extent people eat things like cereal because they like it versus it's all they know. As others have pointed out, vegetables like green beans are often more expensive than processed food, you have to know how to cook in order to prepare them in a way that takes little time and lots of people don't think they like them anyway because they've only had the gross overcooked canned variety.



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