Victory Gardens: Food Security in World War II

Victory gardens, also called war gardens or food gardens for defense, were vegetable, fruit and herb gardens planted at private residences and public parks in United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Germany[1] during World War I and World War II to reduce the pressure on the public food supply brought on by the war effort. In addition to indirectly aiding the war effort these gardens were also considered a civil “morale booster” b in that gardeners could feel empowered by their contribution of labor and rewarded by the produce grown. This made victory gardens become a part of daily life on the home front.

Background

In March of 1917, Charles Lathrop Pack organized the National War Garden Commission and launched the war garden campaign. During World War I, food production had fallen dramatically, especially in Europe, where agricultural labor had been recruited into military service and remaining farms devastated by the conflict. Pack conceived the idea that the supply of food could be greatly increased without the use of land and manpower already engaged in agriculture, and without the significant use of transportation facilities needed for the war effort. The campaign promoted the cultivation of available private and public lands, resulting in over five million gardens[2] and foodstuff production exceeding $1.2 billion by the end of the war[3]. Amid regular rationing of canned food in Britain, a poster campaign (“Plant more in ’44!”) encouraged the planting of victory gardens by nearly 20 million Americans. These gardens produced up to 40 percent of all the vegetable produce being consumed nationally.[4]

Home Front

It was emphasized to home front urbanites and suburbanites that the produce from their gardens would help to lower the price of vegetables needed by the US War Department to feed the troops, thus saving money that could be spent elsewhere on the military: “Our food is fighting,” one US poster read.[5] In Britain the slogan “Dig for Victory” was ubiquitous.[6] Although at first the Department of Agriculture objected to Eleanor Roosevelt’s institution of a victory garden on the White House grounds, fearing that such a movement would hurt the food industry,[7] basic information about gardening appeared in public services booklets distributed by the Department of Agriculture, as well as by agribusiness corporations such as International Harvester and Beech-Nut. The US Department of Agriculture estimates that more than 20 million victory gardens were planted. Fruit and vegetables harvested in these home and community plots was estimated to be 9-10 million tons, an amount equal to all commercial production of fresh vegetables. Victory gardens were planted in backyards and on apartment-building rooftops, with the occasional vacant lot “commandeered for the war effort!” and put to use as a cornfield or a squash patch. During World War II, sections of lawn were publicly plowed for plots in Hyde Park, London to publicize the movement. In New York City, the lawns around vacant “Riverside” were devoted to victory gardens, as were portions of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. In 1946, with the war over, many residents did not plant victory gardens in expectation of greater produce availability. The Fenway Victory Gardens in the Back Bay Fens of Boston, Massachusetts and the Dowling Community Garden in Minneapolis, Minnesota, remain active as the last surviving public examples from World War II. Most plots in the Fenway Victory Gardens now feature flowers instead of vegetables while the Dowling Community Garden retains its focus on vegetables. Since the turn of the century there has existed a growing interest in victory gardens. A grassroots campaign promoting such gardens has recently sprung up in the form of new victory gardens in public spaces, victory garden websites and blogs, as well as petitions to both renew a national campaign for the victory garden and to encourage the re-establishment of a victory garden on the White House lawn. 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.[8]

The Fenway Victory Gardens

The Richard D. Parker Memorial Victory Gardens, usually called the bFenway Victory Gardensb or the bVictory Gardens,b are located in the Fenway area of Boston, Massachusetts. We are as famous to gardeners as a certain neighboring park is to baseball fans b and just as historic. The Fenway Victory Gardens represent the nationbs last remaining of the original victory gardens created nationwide during World War II. At that time, demands for food exports to the nationbs armed forces in Europe and the Pacific caused rationing and shortages for those back home in the States. In response, President Roosevelt called for Americans to grow more vegetables. The City of Boston established 49 areas (including the Boston Common and the Public Gardens!) as bvictory gardensb for citizens to grow vegetables and herbs. The gardens are named for Richard D. Parker, a member of the original garden organizing committee. Mr. Parker was instrumental both in the creation of the Fenway Garden Society, (FGS) and in the preservation of the gardens against various attempts to develop the Fens parkland for other purposes. Mr. Parker gardened until his death in 1975. Thanks to his efforts, the gardens are now an official Boston Historic Landmark.

Films

The United States Department of Agriculture issued a 20 minute film to promote and train people how to plant victory titled Victory Garden. www.archive.org/details/victory_garden

Babbit with his victory garden in A Tale of Two Kitties.

TV Show

The successful WGBH public television series The Victory Garden, given wide distribution in the U.S. over the Public Broadcasting Service, took the familiar expression to promote composting and intensive cropping for homeowners who wanted to raise some vegetables (and some flowers). It has continued for over three decades.

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References:

  1. Victory gardens Australian War Memorial encyclopedia
  2. Pack, Charles Lathrop. War Gardens Victorious (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1919) p. 15.
  3. Eyle, Alexandra. Charles Lathrop Pack: Timberman, Forest Conservationist, and Pioneer in Forest Education (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1994) p. 142.
  4. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/12/magazine/12policy-t.html
  5. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2004678605/?sid=1dda880c2a44a5d081d03cbfceee1a52
  6. For examples of its use, see Google UK image search for “Dig for Victory”
  7. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/12/magazine/12policy-t.html
  8. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/20/dining/20garden.html