A recent Washington Post op-ed penned by Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, Ricardo Salvador and Olivier De Schutter spoke eloquently of the need for a national food policy. It was an inspirational piece with so many good ideas that I’ve found myself referring to it often in recent weeks.

As a researcher who studies wartime food policy, I found particularly resonant their reference to national security in relation to America’s food system. This is what they wrote:

“ The food system and the diet it’s created have caused incalculable damage to the health of our people and our land, water and air. If a foreign power were to do such harm, we’d regard it as a threat to national security, if not an act of war, and the government would formulate a comprehensive plan and marshal resources to combat it.”

Their words immediately called to mind World War I and World War II. In particular, I thought of a remarkable series of WWI posters that explicitly linked gardening and food conservation with national security. Could the past – particularly WWI and WWII home front models – hold a key to creating a national food policy? Their national security reference in this recent op-ed provides a compelling frame and, perhaps what we need to instill in policymakers: a sense of urgency about the challenges facing us on the food front.

“Every Garden a Munition Plant.” Museum of Ventura County. Photo: Aysen Tan.


War and gardens
I often use the tagline “A garden for everyone … everyone in a garden” to advocate for school, home and community gardens. I didn’t create the tagline. It was taken and adapted from United States government literature produced during WWI, specifically from a federally promoted educational program called the United States School Garden Army (USSGA), which had as its slogan “A Garden for Every Child. Every Child in a Garden.”

The program figured more broadly into the nation’s Liberty and Victory Garden movement. It was created during a time of national crisis and heightened concern about the food system. The USSGA was an effort that provided one of the first nationally promoted curricula, through the federal Bureau of Education. And you might be surprised to learn who funded this wartime school gardening program: the War Department.

It is nearly impossible to imagine as our nation engages in a seemingly endless series of conflicts in the Middle East, that our leaders would have any serious concerns about the domestic food supply or consider the health of its citizens as being a national security interest, but that was not the case during WWI and WWII.

Are the goals the nation sought to achieve in WWI and WWII – including increasing home front food production, encouraging food conservation, reducing food waste and improving the health of its citizens – meaningful today? As we enter the era of national health care reform, I would argue that assuring access to healthy, nutritious food is not only a moral issue, it is a social issue, an economic issue and also an issue vital to our national security.


Nurturing nutrition
We are preparing for the rollout of new national dietary guidelines, which will undoubtedly more strongly and explicitly link human health with environmental health and which also likely will call for reduced consumption of meat. The guidelines have yet to be released, but there is already pushback from various groups. Could there be any value in reminding the nation of wartime programs such as Meatless Mondays, when Americans – connecting their food choices with national security themes – voluntarily embraced such measures?

Food conservation efforts during WWI and WWII also provided an opportunity to educate the public about nutrition. Proponents of the “New Nutrition” emphasized substitution of oft-used food items such as meat, white flour, butter and sugar. Protein from beans could be substituted for meat. Recipes offering reduced use of fats and sugars were quickly produced and were shared throughout the nation, scribbled on paper and handed to a next-door neighbor or reprinted in newspapers. It is estimated that during this effort Americans reduced their meat consumption significantly, in some cases by as much as half.


The power of food
When America entered the “War to End All Wars” nearly 100 years ago, President Woodrow Wilson told the nation, “Food will win the war.” Food Administrator Herbert Hoover used his influence to create a sort of “food front” in America that affected in meaningful ways the nation’s ability to respond to wartime needs. The explicit connections drawn between local food choices and wartime (read: national security) needs proved resonant.

Home food production and conservation were regarded as vital national security interests, civic virtues and acts of patriotism. They also were means to accomplish a wide range of public-purposed reform goals, including improving American health, engaging and beautifying communities, reconnecting Americans to their food supply, educating youth, reducing the “food mile,” and encouraging the local production and consumption of food (a notion some might deem entirely modern in its origin).

"Blood or Bread." Museum of Ventura County. Photo: Aysen Tan.
“Blood or Bread.” Museum of Ventura County. Photo: Aysen Tan.

Could a pivot to focusing on reforming the food system – and the imperative to create a coherent national food policy that has real authority to effect change – benefit from stating it more emphatically as an issue vital to national security?

Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Vice President (and former USDA Secretary) Henry Agard Wallace exhorted Americans to consider the role they could play in strengthening the nation’s food system and focusing on what the government termed “nutritional defense”: the health of the nation’s citizens, which Wallace correctly perceived to be key to real national security.

While Wallace’s is a mixed legacy, the vision he shared at a time of great crisis is perhaps something we might consider as a touchstone for our work. He wrote this:

“On a foundation of good food we can build anything. Without it we can build nothing.”