What's Cooking, Uncle Sam? Exhibit Examines Government's Role in the American Diet

Categories: Rants
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Poster created by the USDA to encourage farmers to use quality feed for pigs.

If you're anything like me, your food pyramid is inverted and looks more like a yield sign. The "food groups" in your yield sign probably have little to do with portion control or balance and everything to do with convenience and indulgence. It may look something like this...

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Illustration: Misha Grosvenor
Look familiar?

As you can see, the "Yum" Category is primarily made up of fat, sugar, and value menu items. It also makes up the largest portion of the "food groups." The next category, "Yikes," is composed solely of alcoholic beverages.The "Sike" category creates a very small tip and is composed of healthy items (I eat from this category about twice a month when I try to convince myself to live a clean and simple lifestyle.) If this inverted pyramid looks familiar, Uncle Sam wants YOU to clean up your act!
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Photo: Misha Grosvenor

On a recent trip to Washington, D.C., I popped into the National Archives to check out a new food exhibit called "What's Cooking, Uncle Sam? The Government's Effect on the American Diet"(on display through January 2012). At the exhibit's entrance is a gigantic old food group poster with seven categories, one of them being butter, a category that I eat from almost exclusively. I entered the exhibit thinking that it would be one big pat on the back display of how vigilant the U.S. government has been in protecting the American people. To my surprise, the exhibit showed the good, the bad, and the ugly with regard to the government's role in the food industry. 

Food Group Poster c.1945- It's still being used by Paula Deen today.

The exhibit chronicles the government's influence on the American diet, from the Revolutionary War to the late 1900s. It is divided into four sections: farm, factory, kitchen, and table. The history of many controversial agricultural issues such as the increased production of beet sugar and soybean products during World War II is traced through the use of old posters, news clippings, and photographs.

WWII Poster encouraging farmers to grow sugar beets.

The exhibit also provides examples of successful and not-so-successful legislation that was passed over the years to protect the interests of the American people, farmers, and the U.S. agricultural industry at large, such as the Margarine Act of 1886. The act raised the price of margarine through the use of taxes in an attempt to protect dairy farmers who felt threatened by the introduction of margarine to the American diet. Margarine bootleggers (dirty scoundrels!) were often jailed for over a year for trying to circumvent the act. Shortly after World War II, a time when butter became scarce, the act was repealed.  

Mug shot circa 1915 of convicted margarine smuggler Charles Wille.

Another area of the exhibit explores "food frights" and provides an interesting example of the power that art has had on shaping the food industry. In this portion of the exhibit hangs an original letter to President Theodore Roosevelt from author Upton Sinclair. Sinclair's famed novel The Jungle revealed the horrors of the meat-packing industry (though Sinclair's primary aim was to illustrate the need for labor reform), causing a huge public outcry. Despite Roosevelt's beliefs that the author was "a crackpot," he promised to investigate the validity of Sinclair's accusations about the industry. The investigation led to major changes in the meat-packing industry.  

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Political cartoon illustrating food fright over canned meat products.

It's no secret that over the past few years, many Americans have experienced a renewed appreciation for food and dining. We have channels devoted to food, have made celebrities out of chefs, and have revived our love for cooking. This thought-provoking exhibit raises important questions about the food we eat and where it comes from as well as the social, environmental, and economic impact of food in our country and worldwide.

If you can't visit the exhibit, you can view parts of it online at archives.gov, and you can also purchase the book online from the website's gift shop.

Bon appétit!   

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hmmm...margarine smuggling sounds like it could be a lucrative trade even today.....

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