Sow for Victory: Bringing Back the Victory Garden

Meredith Skyer outlines the history of victory gardens in the United States and why this nation, facing a food crisis, should start to sow for victory once again.

Reader Contribution by Meredith Skyer
article image
by Flickr/jen wingate

Let’s take a little field trip back to 1943. Go ahead and hop in those time machines! We’re going to explore the day and age when the world was at war and our food supply was in peril.

American Life in 1943

Think about this: The average family in 1943 was living on $29 a week. Food staples were rationed out to families in order to provide for the troops. As you can imagine, fresh fruits and vegetables were in short supply. In order to keep the nation from starvation, the U.S. Government encouraged folks to help out in any way that they could. Propaganda posters popped up in every town urging families to plant ‘Victory Gardens’ to provide their own produce.

Over 20 million American families took up the call for ‘victory.’ They collaborated with friends and neighbors and took control of their own food supply. Even schools got involved in the cause by planting gardens in schoolyards to provide supplemental food for school lunches. The number of canning supplies sold more than quadrupled from 1943 to 1944.  Eleanor Roosevelt encouraged her fellow citizens by planting a victory garden at the White House in 1943.

The plan was a wild success across the nation. As the National WWII Museum website indicates, “By 1944, Victory Gardens were responsible for producing 40 percent of all vegetables grown in the United States. More than one million tons of vegetables were grown in Victory Gardens during the war.”
FORTY PERCENT of all vegetables? Holy moly! Can you imagine if we did that today?

old poster for a victory garden with a family planting a garden on it

The U.S. Food System after World War II

After the war was over in 1945, victory gardens began to steadily disappear from backyards and rooftops. Grocery stores popped up across the nation and buying everything we needed from them became commonplace. Commercial foods became more widely available and Americans didn’t see any reason to continue growing their own anymore. New and different problems began to crop up in our nation’s food supply… “The effort of the victory gardeners was directed toward the defeat of an easily identified enemy – the Axis powers. Today, our ‘enemy’–the eco crisis looming on our horizon–is more elusive and complex and is potentially a greater adversary.”

–Phillip Wenz, San Francisco Gate

All right, let’s hop back in those time machines and return to the present day.

Today, we live in a very different world than that of the 1940’s. With the opening of commercial grocery stores in towns across the country, the food system has adjusted to meet the ever-increasing demands of the public. Scientists have genetically modified our food in labs. Farmers have resorted to using industrial methods of growing food and raising livestock.  Vegetables are now coated with poisons in the fields. Animals are kept in tight quarters where they lead miserable lives. All of this happens even before the food is packed onto a truck, shipped across the country, and stocked in a supermarket. During the long journey almost half of this produce will spoil.

Producing food isn’t what it used to be, and our bodies and wallets are taking the toll.

The next time you’re at the grocery store, take a closer look at the produce section.  Do some investigation. Become a food spy. You can even wear a trench coat and a spiffy hat!

Try this: Check out the labels to see where the produce comes from. Consider the massive amount of fuel it takes to get a piece of produce all the way across the country. Consider the nutritional value of food that traveled on the road for two weeks before it arrived at your store.  Also consider how hard it is for your local farmer to compete with industrial produce from overseas.  Farm workers in other countries are paid pitiful wages and food safety practices are lax, which makes it cheap and easy to produce low quality, sometimes down right poisonous foods.
Food is our energy source; it is what we give our bodies to run on. Food matters. And everything that is done to it before it gets to your mouth matters, too.

So, What Can We Do About It?

Our agricultural system is a mess, it is enough to make your head spin.  There’s a slew of information available to cover the various problems we’re facing. It’s not my goal today to depress you, it’s my goal to give you hope. If you’d like to research on your own, please check out the links at the bottom of this page. I’m here to tell you there is something that we can do about this.

Our problems today may be different from that of 1943 but our solutions are in many ways the same.  We can take a lesson from the wisdom of the past and go back to our old ways.  We can take control of our food: where it comes from, how it’s produced, and what goes into it.  This power can be in your hands, and let me tell you, this is the most almighty of powers!

old poster of a woman spreading seeds for a victory garden

Bring Back the Victory Garden!

Even without food rationing and propaganda posters, people all across the nation are taking notice of the condition of our food supply and choosing to do something about it. Consumers are starting to look more closely at food labels and are refusing to buy things with unpronounceable ingredients.  Organic foods are becoming an increasingly common sight on grocery store shelves. Farmer’s markets are popping up in neighborhoods across the country.

Even Michelle Obama got into the act and planted a kitchen garden on the lawn of the White House as part of her campaign to end childhood obesity and advocate healthy eating.

Obama was the first First Lady to plant a garden on the White House lawn since Eleanor Roosevelt did so in 1943.  70 years later, her actions give us hope for a new age of agricultural awareness.  She says of her efforts:

“It is my hope that our garden’s story – and the stories of gardens across America – will inspire families, schools, and communities to try their own hand at gardening and enjoy all the gifts of health, discovery, and connection a garden can bring.”

-Michelle Obama, American Grown

Our collective outlook on food is changing for the better.  Once again, families are taking control of their food, and you can too!

Victory Garden Resources

National WWII Museum

Living History Farm

Bring Back the Victory Garden

Posters provided by Victory Garden Foundation