By Glenn Teves, UH College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources
In 1943, our nation was at war, and resources of all kinds were being diverted to the war effort. The government rationed foods like sugar, butter, milk, cheese, eggs, coffee, meat and canned goods. Gas rationing, coupled with labor and transportation shortages, made it difficult to harvest and transport fruits and vegetables to market. As a result, the government turned to its citizens and encouraged them to plant “Victory Gardens” so families could provide for their own fruits and vegetables.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt led the call to plant gardens and even planted one on the White House lawn. At first, the Department of Agriculture (DOA) objected to this initiative, fearing that such a movement would hurt the food industry. Government agencies, private foundations, businesses, schools and seed companies all worked together to provide land, instruction and seeds for individuals and communities to grow food and promote self-reliance. A 20-minute film developed by the DOA explained how to create a garden, and it was shown far and wide. Victory gardens also allowed more resources to be shipped to the troops. Even the island of Molokai got involved and grew fields of Irish potatoes in the Ho`olehua Hawaiian Home Lands to support the war effort.
As a result, more than 20 million victory gardens were planted. Fruit and vegetables harvested in these home and community plots was estimated to be nine to 10 million tons, an amount equal to all commercial production of fresh vegetables. Victory gardeners had produced about 50 percent of all the vegetables in the nation that year. Families were encouraged to can their own vegetables to save commercial canned goods for the troops. As a result, families bought 315,000 pressure cookers (used in the process of canning) in 1943, compared to 66,000 in 1942. By 1946, with the war ended, the growing of gardens slowed in anticipation of greater produce availability with men returning from the war.
The post-war global economy brought many changes to the way we live, through marketing messages of consumerism and a reliance on others. A whole generation of baby boomers knows it no other way. As the population ages, we’re losing the experiences of the Great Depression and World War II. Our parents and grandparents, who experienced these struggles embraced the values of “use-it-up, wear-it-out, make-it-do, or do-without” out of necessity. These are the values that once defined our rural communities, and it’s difficult to tell if we embrace the same values today. Have we really learned from the struggles of the past, or are we living in the ‘I want it now’ disposable generation?
Today, many are struggling in the midst of this recession, and that makes many insecure about their food, especially when we live in one of the most isolated places in the world – 2,000 miles away from the closest major food producing areas. The global economy is out of our hands and we have no way of influencing it. Those with a keen instinct to survive in tough times are returning to the fundamentals, including gardening. Polls indicate that two million more households grew vegetables in 2008 than in 2007, and 2009 results indicate that there’s been a 20 percent increase over 2008. In March 2009, First Lady Michelle Obama planted an 1,100-square-foot “Kitchen Garden” on the White House lawn, the first since Eleanor Roosevelt’s, to raise awareness about healthy food. If the first lady can do it, so can we, and it all starts with a small plot of land and some seeds. Next time, we’ll talk about seeds.