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How Uncle Sam Helps Define America’s Diet

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
June 7, 2011

First Lady Michelle Obama received a lot of attention for her vegetable garden on the South Lawn of the White House. The garden, which provides vegetables for both the First Family and for state dinners, was also meant to provide Americans with an example of how to eat more healthily.

As it turns out, Washington has a long tradition of trying to guide the American diet, going back over 200 years. Founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin brought plants like rice and olives from their missions abroad to see how they would fare in their own country.

Later, the Department of Agriculture sent “agricultural explorers” to remote parts of the world to find plants that would do well in the US. Those explorers often ventured to dangerous places and had to deal with threats from extreme weather, wild animals and hostile locals. One of the most famous of these explorers was Frank Meyer, one of whose discoveries – the Meyer lemon – is named for him.

Documentation of these expeditions are housed in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and are part of a new exhibit called What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam? The Government’s Effect on the American Diet.

NPR’s Renee Montagne met with the exhibit’s head curator, Alice Kamps. Kamps explains that while people might not think food as part of American history, the Archives have extensive records on that subject.

“Anything that touches our lives is represented here,” she says. “Food, of course, is a very basic, every day kind of thing and government’s been involved in it since there’s been a government.”

One of the most popular programs created by the federal government began in the 1920s and took advantage of a new technology at the time — the radio. The Department of Agriculture produced one of the earliest radio shows, which was called “Aunt Sammy” — the wife of Uncle Sam. The program was aimed largely at farm wives and provided recipes and cooking tips.

The government also sought to provide nutritional information to the American public. One poster in the exhibit shows a 1930s-era poster, illustrating 100-calorie portions of familiar foods. 100 calories was equal to a pound of tomatoes or three large prunes or a bowl of cereal.

The concept isn’t unfamiliar — consumers today can find 100-calorie packages of snacks on supermarket shelves. But, as Kamps points out, the goal of enumerating calories was completely different back then.

“The focus then was getting enough calories,” she explains. “This was during the Great Depression. Unlike now where we’re counting calories to keep them down, they were counting calories to get enough.”

In addition to making sure Americans were getting enough food, the federal government was looking to protect Americans from contaminated food. Many food and drug laws came about in the early 20th century. One pioneer in food safety was Harvey Wiley, a chemist with the Department of Agriculture.

Wiley was convinced that many of the substances that were added to foods — the preservatives and dyes and so forth — were dangerous. But he needed evidence of this so he decided to test these substances on humans. In 1903, he began an experiment he called the hygienic table.

“He enlisted a number of young men, volunteers, to take all of their meals in the basement of the department of agriculture,” says. Kamps. “They outfitted this room with white tablecloths, they had waiters, they hired a chef, so the meals were very carefully prepared but then these chemical substances were added to them, like formaldehyde and boric acid.”

Wiley kept notes and tables of the effects the meals had on his volunteers. Often, they became violently ill. One note reads: “#5 was nauseated and sick during the night of February 1 and vomited all of his dinner. He did not eat breakfast on February 2.”

Wiley’s experiment attracted a tremendous amount of attention from the press, which dubbed his team of young volunteers “The Poison Squad.” But the notoriety helped his cause because people became aware of the dangers of these substances, which went a long way in helping pass the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906.

That law made it illegal to ship or receive any adulterated or misbranded foods, like ketchup. The condiment was one of the first convenience foods that had commercial success but, during the mid-1800s, it was sometimes prepared from the refuse of canneries. Tomato skins, cores, peels and sometimes rotten tomatoes went into this product — once it was bottled, the bacteria often caused the containers to explode.

Along with information on the government’s role in regulating the food industry, the exhibit also provides records of other programs, such as war rationing, school lunches, and the history of the oh-so-familiar (and now obsolete) food pyramid.

“What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam? The Government’s Effect on the American Diet” opens at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., on Friday, June 10 and runs through Jan. 3, 2012. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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