First lady Michelle Obama's introduction of "My Plate," a representation of ideal proportions of protein, dairy, vegetables, fruits, and grains for Americans, is the most recent of a host of ways in which the government has influenced citizens' relationship to food. Over the past centuries, the government's approach to our nutrition has been influenced by factors like the economy and social movements. These transformations and their implications are explored in an upcoming exhibit at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. called "What's Cooking, Uncle Sam? The Government's Effect on the American Diet."
In an interview with NPR's Renee Montagne, head curator Alice Kamps said of the exhibit, "Anything that touches our lives is represented here. Food, of course, is a very basic, everyday kind of thing, and government's been involved in it since there's been a government."
The exhibit addresses the government's involvement in four areas: Farms, Factories (with an emphasis on regulation and protection from contamination), Kitchens (including war rationing), and Table (exploring the effects the government's approach to food has had on our appetites).
The exhibit will no doubt draw attention to some of the damaging changes in policy that have gotten us to where we are today, with huge subsidized factory farms and a tragic obesity epidemic.
But one of the programs it highlights makes me realize just how far we've come as a nation: a 1920s radio show produced by the Department of Agriculture. It was called "Aunt Sammy," a reference to the (oppressed, underprivileged) wife of Uncle Sam, and it provided recipes and cooking tips to (equally oppressed and underprivileged) farm wives so they could prepare meals for their husbands. The fact that a radio show like that would never air in this country today is heartening.
One of the most telling aspects of the exhibit will no doubt be the various stages of government-issued nutritional guidelines. In the 1930s, posters depicted 100-calorie portions of familiar foods so Americans could ensure they were eating enough during the Great Depression. Now, during the "Great Recession" or whatever we're in right now, 100-calorie portions are viewed by most Americans as restrictive, and the only people you'd see eating 100-calorie packs of cookies or crackers are dieters.
For a preview of the exhibit, which will run from June 10th through January 3rd, click here.