Piney Woods Journal Correspondent
1943. The world was at war. The needs of the American military diverted resources once devoted to building cars and feeding families to the war effort. People dutifully supported the fight by purchasing bonds, recycling scrap metal, volunteering, and knitting socks for soldiers.
With much of the country’s processed food shipped overseas to feed millions of troops, the government established a rationing system to distribute sugar, eggs, milk, butter, coffee, meat, and canned goods. Labor and transportation shortages complicated moving produce to market.
To ensure sufficient food for Americans still at home, the government encouraged “Victory Gardens.”
While generations of rural families raised their own food, this was a new undertaking for city dwellers. Nearly 20 million Americans planted gardens in backyards, empty lots, and on building rooftops. Children cultivated small plots at schools within the shadows of city skyscrapers.
Magazines like the Saturday Evening Post and Life ran stories on Victory Gardens. Women’s magazines printed instructions on growing and preserving garden produce. Home canning of fruits and vegetables was promoted to save commercially-canned goods for the troops. In 1943, families bought 315,000 pressure cookers to prepare food for canning compared to 66,000 in 1942. The World War II Victory Gardens produced nine to ten million tons of food, an amount equal to all commercial production of fresh vegetables.
The endeavor was not unique to World War II. In the First World War and the following years, American Victory Gardens helped feed the country and kept war-torn Europe from starving. An article appearing in several Louisiana newspapers the year after World War I ended, including Hahnville’s St. Charles Journal noted, “millions of us voluntarily started in to make gardens and raise food. Many of these voluntary gardeners hardly knew a spade from a hoe; some probably thought that potatoes grew in the grocery store. Certainly, lots of these gardeners had no land. But it made no difference. The American people went to gardening. From the Atlantic to the Pacific the war gardens of the workers stretched in an almost unbroken line. The cotton mills of the East, the lumber camps of Oregon, the mining towns of Arizona, the great factories of the middle West, the shipyards of Texas all saw the upspringing of innumerable war gardens. The second summer saw the first redoubled. It’s too soon for us to begin to appreciate what this war rationing and this war gardening has done in winning the war, feeding the world and benefitting the American people.”
A 1919 issue of the Natchitoches Enterprise reported, “According to official estimate the war gardens of 1918 were worth $525,000,000 to the food commission and the victory gardens are expected to make 1919 the biggest producing year the country ever saw, to help feed the people of Europe.”
Today, the idea of growing food seems foreign to our modern lifestyle. With a fast food joint on practically every corner, online grocery distributors, and delivery services, even trips to the store seem old-fashioned. We are on the second or perhaps third generation of Americans who rely on someone else to prepare their food, with little idea what it contains or how it affects their bodies.
Although there’s no need to garden to compensate for rationing or to demonstrate your patriotism, plenty of other reasons exist. If you have concerns about pesticide use and foodborne illnesses like salmonella, fresh vegetables from your own garden may allay your fears. A family garden presents an opportunity to teach kids food does not just appear in grocery stores and restaurants. As an outdoor classroom away from video games and smartphones, the garden teaches children self-reliance while they engage in a worthwhile family endeavor. Fresh fruits and vegetables possess many healthy advantages over store-bought processed foods. If those aren’t enough reasons, consider the high prices of restaurant fare and the not-so-fresh produce at your local supermarket.
Before you know it, spring planting time will be upon us and anyone can grow a Victory Garden. Many delicious vegetables grow easily in Louisiana soil. Whether you have a large backyard or just room for a few pots, make 2019 the year you enjoy homegrown, fresh food. A few pennies in seeds will produce more food than your family can eat.
Help is readily available. Check out the Louisiana Vegetable Planting Guide at http://www.lsuagcenter.com. It is an excellent manual on when and what to plant, how deep to place seeds, and how to space plants. The LSU AgCenter county agent in your parish can answer your questions. Scores of self-help videos at youtube.com can help. Among the easiest vegetables to grow in full sunshine are peas, beans, squash, and okra.
Some crops require more space like corn, cantaloupes, and watermelons. Some leafy greens like cabbage, mustard, and spinach prefer the cooler months and don’t grow well in Louisiana’s hot summers.
You can win the food war by growing your own Victory Garden.
Wesley Harris is a native of Ruston who writes extensively on Reconstruction era crime. His books include Greetings From Ruston: A Post Card History of Ruston, Louisiana and Neither Fear nor Favor: Deputy United States Marshal John Tom Sisemore, available from amazon.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Check out his Louisiana history blog at http://diggingthepast.blogspot.com