Sacrificing Food on the Home Front
“Freedom from Want”1 was a common ternion of words used to inform the American people of their duties on the home front. President Franklin D. Roosevelt encouraged the American people to ration food and distribute it equally amongst themselves in order to send more food to the soldiers on the battlefront. Food rationing called people to sacrifice luxury food items such as meat and sugar in order to feed the soldiers in Europe. This method, first used by the British, was used by the U.S. to supply the demand that was brought about by World War II. Food rationing gave the people on the home front a sense of democracy and support for the war. Not only did food rationing help the soldiers, but it also helped the Americans on the home front by providing a sense of involvement in the war. This government policy helped gain support for the government’s actions on the war. This book, Eating for Victory-Food Rationing and the Politics of Domesticity by Amy Bentley, focuses on the impact of food rationing in America during WWII and the politics behind it.
In the first two chapters, titled “Rationing is Good Democracy” and “Woman as Wartime Homemaker: Family, Food and National Security” respectively, Bentley displays her knowledge on the technical workings of food rationing. Rationing created a more united nation in a wartime environment. Sharing and saving food for the soldiers fighting on the battlefront promoted a sense of nationalism on the home front. The policy of food rationing used by the government also helped American citizens feel more involved in the war effort. The demand for food for the soldiers was high, and food rationing was a tactic used to address that demand. Food rationing limited people on the home front from eating all kinds of luxurious food stuffs. The first chapter delves into the effects of food rationing and how people viewed it. The Office of War Information (OWI) wanted the U.S. to be fully supportive of the war at home. In the second chapter, “Woman as Wartime Homemaker: Family, Food, and National Security”, Bentley emphasizes the role of women on the home front. Americans viewed a “woman’s real and most important battlefield was the kitchen.”2 The government encouraged women to prepare foods in smaller quantities in order to increase the amount of food sent to soldiers in Europe. The woman’s role is defined in the chapter title. “Family” refers to the task of protecting and sustaining the family. “Food” refers to the amounts and types of foods a woman should cook in the house for the family. “National Security” defines the role of a woman to protect and educate the children of the nation. National security was an important task for the women of the nation because the future of the nation rests in the children. In order to provide protection for the country in the future, the children needed to be protected and educated at the start. Although national security was important, food rationing was the main focus of the country. Women were encouraged by the government to conserve food at home and help support the war effort. The government informed women on the home front that they had an equal responsibility to those on the battlefield.
The third chapter, titled “Islands of Serenity: Gender, Race, and Ordered Meals”, addresses the impact of food rationing on the different genders and races. Food rationing helped unite the different ethnic peoples and genders. The men were mainly seen as soldiers fighting the war, but the women were the ones who kept the country running at home. At the start of the war, men and women had different types of jobs and the work place was full of discrimination. In the pre-World War II era, most women would stay at home and tend to the children, but a few exceptions were present. Most of the work force composed of men and very few women. During WWII, some women started working out of necessity for their family sustenance. As men left the country to fight the war, women in the work force replaced the men, but were given lower wages than the men. After a couple of protests and activities, women saw their salaries rise to the level of the men. Although working away from home, women had an equal responsibility at home. Food rationing was a major contribution at home. Food rationing helped each family in the U.S. rich or poor receive an equal amount of food. It also had an effect on social behaviors. Racial discrimination against blacks and minorities were problems present before the war. The government encouraged people from all backgrounds to participate in the food rationing system including blacks and minorities. African-Americans were majorly impacted by the war. They used food rationing as an incentive to gain more rights after the war. They were looking for better treatment from whites and end discrimination completely. African-Americans joined the work force in great numbers. Some white Americans were disturbed when they saw African-Americans working alongside them. Those Whites didn’t want African-Americans to take over their jobs, so they set up private camps to plan against African-Americans. These camps involved white women from different classes in the work force to plan against the growing African-American involvement in factory work. They looked to end African-American employment in factories by protesting and petitioning. This was only a small attempt to stop African-Americans to work in the factories, and did not succeed in the end. Although some opposed the work environment with blacks, as an overall nation, the U.S. looked united. Food rationing helped unite people from all ethnic backgrounds and support the war as a nation. One method rationing food was by distributing ordered meals. Ordered meals were meals in a package of set quantities. These meals were called the “A + 2B” 3 meals. The A + 2B meals contained a medium portion of meat(A) and two small servings of side dishes(2B), which usually consisted of beans or corn. Government agencies, such as the Office of War information (OWI) or the Office of Price Administration (OPA), involved in creating this meal advocated that all American families serve this packaged meal so that food could be conserved for the soldiers on the battlefield. These agencies were created in order to oversee the progress of food rationing and add any policies necessary for the improvement of war circumstances on the home front.
In the chapter titled “Meat and Sugar: Consumption, Rationing, and Wartime Food Deprivation”, Bentley explains the major food items that underwent rationing and the impacts that rationing of those foods had on people on the home front. Meat and sugar were two food items that, based on potential to buy, identified the rich and the poor; higher classes could purchase meat and sugar whereas the lower classes could not afford to spend money on those commodity items. Meat was symbolized as strong and tough just like men, and sugar was symbolized as sweet and sugary just like women. Prior to the war, only people with the higher incomes could buy those high priced items. During the war with food rationing, everyone got an equivalent amount of those items. Before World War II, women in the kitchen had many baked goods in the homes. During the war, everyone would find an “empty cookie jar on the kitchen counter” 4 because of the rationing of sugar. The rationing of sugar affected all homes in the United States. Meat was also rationed so that the flesh and bones could be supplied overseas to the men in order for them to become stronger on the battlefront. Some viewed the war times as a food crisis in the United States, and completely opposed food rationing.
In the final two chapters, titled “Victory Gardening and Canning: Men, Women, and Home Front Family Food Production” and “Freedom from Want: Abundance and Sacrifice in U.S. Postwar Famine Relief”, Bentley elaborates on the specific efforts made to improve food production and conservation in the U.S. Government agencies such as the Office of Price Control (OPA), the Office of War Information (OWI), and the Committee on Food Habits (CFH) worked to encourage people to grow their own produce and conserve anything leftover. This idea was introduced when the government was looking for other methods to supply the massive demand of food to the soldiers. The best possible way to supply food would to have all the people on the home front grow the food in their backyards. At the start of the war, many families participated, but not enough to supply the massive demand. Soon with the introduction of advertisements, more than 75% of the U.S. homes started to grow crops in their own backyards. The advertisements mainly addressed women because they controlled the homes in the absence of their husbands. People in urban areas that didn’t have backyards grew crops on window sills. These gardens were referred to as victory gardens after the war because they would lead to a victory in the war. To help preserve food, women would can the excess food and turn them into local collecting buckets. Women were pictured as soldiers in uniforms, but their uniform was their apron. Bentley described “Canning during the war was particularly time-consuming work”5. Women were expected to can the food even though it took a long time. The victory gardens helped boost the agrarian economy, and food production was increased by almost 10 fold. Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to implement the saying “Freedom from Want” because he wanted the American people to sacrifice food for soldiers fighting on the battlefield. The President wanted the Americans to sacrifice food for WWII.
Bentley leaned towards the government policies during the war. She focused on the inner workings of food rationing and how it affected the people on the home front. Bentley believed that food rationing was beneficial to the U.S. as it helped them win the war. She takes a more supportive role of the government. She described the effect of Victory Gardens that they “functioned as a symbol of wartime patriotism was communicated not only by the government and the media but by the gardeners themselves.”6 Bentley helped present the government as a beneficial tool to the common masses. The policies displayed by the government were favored by all according to Bentley. Bentley mentions many small phrases that counter the government policies, but they are wonderfully masked under the praise of the government.
Bentley hasn’t published any other works other than Eating for Victory. She is from England, but gets her knowledge from many resources. She has focused her works on the effects of politics on the common people in the nation. Government politics was a main focus in her writing. She expresses her thanks to all the resources she used to produce this book making her a credible source. She “thanks the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library”7 for supplying her with the resources needed to create this book. She has put this book together from many resources. Bentley’s attitudes towards WWII are supportive of the government. This book helps open a new sphere to our eyes on the war in relation to the common community in the United States.
This book was written during Ronald Reagan’s Presidency, a time in which the economics mirrored those of Herbert Hoover. The economic times from the Great Depression helped people realize the food shortages that the U.S. faced. Amy Bentley wrote this book to analyze the ways food rationing helped get rid of the bad economic times. Bentley’s “family”8 encouraged her to dive in to the deeper meaning of food rationing. Bentley wrote in a manner focusing on the social economics of the U.S. She was supported by her husband to write on the topic of food rationing.
A critical review was written by Rachel Waltner on the book Eating for Victory. She reviewed the book in a “positive light”9 according to the examples given in the book. Waltner viewed the book as praise on the governmental policies and agencies. She viewed the Office of Price Administration (OPA) as an agency that helped the American home front gain support for the war. Waltner believes that this book gives an accurate view on World War II consumption by the American people on the home front. The one part of the book she does criticize is the use of information from the 1990’s. Waltner doesn’t believe that all the information from the 1990’s is sufficient enough to provide a detailed book on food rationing in WWII. She also sees the title of the book to be very broad and lengthy. The “Politics of Domesticity” part of the title seemed to be unnecessary because it was rarely mentioned in the book. The book only brushed on the political side of things. As an overall review, Waltner writes that the book was sufficient enough to give valuable facts and information on food rationing in World War II.
This book involves many different aspects of the home front in accordance with food rationing. Food rationing was a major focus of the book, but at times the major concepts were lacking. The book seemed to dive too deep into the politics of food rationing instead of talking about food rationing. On a positive note, Bentley did a good job presenting ideas and information in chronological order. The information was quite correct, and the book flowed as a whole. The social side of the U.S. was presented in a clear and concise manner, but a few flaws were present. “Not only the growing but also the sharing of the produce of the gardens were community-building events”10 was an example from the book that seemed to branch off into another dimension involving city events. The paragraph that follows this sentence had no meaning in accordance with produce (food) or building events. The conclusions drawn at the end on the freedom from want were not agreeable because most people did not like the sacrifices.
The author did agree with the idea that the 1940’s was a watershed in American History. She viewed it as a beneficial aspect of the war to both the people on the home front and the soldiers on the battlefield. She believed that war united the nation. She saw that the U.S. was going in a new course. Food rationing encouraged unity in the U.S. while it helped feed soldiers fighting the war. WWII was a major contribution to that watershed. One example that supports the watershed was “with the Great Depression, women who had once canned but quit took out their pressure canners and glass jars to make sure their families had an adequate food supply.”11 The Great Depression left many families with major cutbacks. WWII and the jobs created by it helped the economy swing into motion. This was definitely a watershed moment. Bentley fully agrees with the assumption that the 1940s was a watershed in American history. She states that the war created a new identity for the U.S. and changed it forever. This is quite clear and obvious to the point of the watershed of the 1940s.
“Not only has American consumption of certain foods changed, but so has the modern American meal.”12 Bentley sums up the points in the book’s epilogue by explaining the changes that have occurred from World War II to the 1990’s. Food rationing has created an identity for the U.S. and changed the connection made with the American resident and his food.
1. Rockwell, Norman. Saturday Evening Post, 1943. 59.
2. Bentley, Amy. Eating for Victory. Illinois: Board of Trustees, 1998. 31.
3. Bentley, Amy. 83.
4. Bentley, Amy. 113.
5. Bentley, Amy. 130.
6. Montanari, Massimo. The Culture of Food. Cambridge, Mass.:Blackwell. 1994. 121.
7. Hartmann, Susan. The Homefront and Beyond: American Women in the 1940s. Boston: Twayne. 1982. 2.
8. Bentley, Amy. 3.
9. Waltner, Rachel. “Amy Bentley: Eating for Victory-Food rationing and the Politics of Domesticity,” 2000.
10. Bentley, Amy. 123.
11. Bentley, Amy. 131.
12. Bentley, Amy. 172.