War Gardens: Winning the Food Fight on Home Soil

Hello, autumn. As pumpkins, parsnips, and apples signal the harvest, I’m gathering artifacts from The Strong’s collections related to a time when farmers were called away to war and civilians rescued the food supply.

World War I sent many of Europe’s male food growers to the front, leaving farms shorthanded at best. The war efforts commandeered rail lines essential for food distribution and disrupted trade between conflicting countries. Food shortages forced severe rationing, leaving Europe in dire straits. One month before the United States entered the war and sent its own workforce overseas, the government launched a propaganda campaign urging Americans to grow their own food in “war gardens.” By reducing consumer dependence on farms, the United States could send its surplus to Europe. Through both World Wars, the program fed Europe’s hungry, supplied the troops, and ensured the United States’ ability to feed its people.

The National War Garden Commission encouraged Americans to convert lawns and vacant lots into war gardens, leaving “no idle acre.” The Commission distributed planting instructions and displayed posters equating gardens with ammunition plants. This comparison required no stretch of the imagination; people who would have worked on farms could instead support the war effort through factory labor. Moreover, war gardens minimized the need to ship food long distances, thereby releasing trains, trucks, and personnel to haul military supplies. The Commission also argued that by growing their own produce, people would save enough money to buy Liberty Bonds and subsidize the war.

The Commission counted an astounding 5,285,000 war gardens in 1918. Among The Strong’s collections are patriotic paper dolls from the same era; the cheerful pictures glorify gardening coveralls and tempt children with colorful vegetables. Gardening gave wartime children more than just an opportunity to play in the dirt—it made them feel useful in a time of confusion.

Children and adults alike derived a sense of purpose from war gardens as their contributions resonated globally. Access to homegrown produce also minimized the hardship of conservation, such as Herbert Hoover’s Meatless Mondays, and rationing, which hit Americans during World War II; though, most Americans would have viewed these measures as their patriotic duty rather than a deprivation. Because the troops needed protein to endure difficult conditions, civilians were happy to go without.

Even before the U.S. government imposed official meat rationing in 1943, it requested that adult civilians limit their weekly beef intake to two and a half pounds—about six ounces per day, including bones and fat. Mrs. Knox’s Meatless Main Dishes and Leftover Hints (1942) offered ideas for stretching scraps of meat into a meal by adding alternative sources of protein, specifically Knox Gelatine, a “pure protein” (and therefore cost-efficient) substance derived from animal byproducts. The brochure’s recipes directed home cooks to mix ingredients with gelatin and water and pour them into a mold to solidify for a nutritious and elegant presentation.

Exercising creativity at lunchtime helped make each meal count. Pack-a-Lunch for Victory (1942) recommended women plan balanced, hearty meals to fuel their working husbands—yet another way of supporting the war effort from the kitchen. A striking image inside the booklet demonstrates the few degrees of separation between a wife handing off a wholesome midday meal to her husband and a soldier putting Adolf Hitler out of commission.

After that goal’s realization, war gardens survived as “victory gardens.” Today gardens continue to bring communities together around horticulture and the pleasures that growing and eating can offer. The Rochester region boasts examples in the South Wedge, Penfield, and Northeast Rochester, as well as through Community-Supported Agriculture. For history-conscious observers, they’re further proof that gardens make good neighbors.