The Victory Garden

“If people let government decide which food they eat and medicines they take, their bodies will soon be in as sorry a state as are the souls of those who live under tyranny”

Thomas Jefferson

A backyard garden can quite literally feed a whole family. People don’t have to be dependent on international agribusinesses, nutritionally valueless food, grain from Russia or Ukraine, food imports from China and other countries, or even be dependent on high priced organics to feed ourselves and their families. Each of us has the power to create our food from scratch. So, let’s walk through the history of the war gardens in the UK and US, which later evolved into what we know as the victory garden.

During World War I, food production fell dramatically in Europe because farm workers left for military service, and many farms were destroyed by the war. Furthermore, transport of goods became difficult due to the dangerous conditions required for shipping by boat. A wealthy US philanthropist and conservationist (Charles Lathrop Pack) conceived of the idea that food supply could be greatly increased by citizens planting small vegetable gardens which would supply local communities with food. That this could be done without the use of the land and manpower already engaged in larger scale agriculture, and without the significant use of transportation facilities which were otherwise needed for the war effort.

The US National War Garden Commission was organized in 1917 by Mr. Pack, and within that same year the War Garden Campaign was launched. This campaign promoted the use of surplus private and public lands for small vegetable gardens. This program resulted in over five million gardens, and the value of the produce from these gardens exceeded $1.2 billion by the end of the war.  Even children were mobilized in the effort, and school victory gardens were also planted at educational institutions throughout the USA.  The United State Garden Army was established by the United States Bureaus of Education and the Department of the Interior, and President Wilson took a special interest in the cause. By the end of WWI, more food was being produced by these home gardens than farmers had produced in years prior to the war!

The idea of the war garden was continued and expanded during World War II, as labor and transportation shortages once again made it hard to harvest crops and to move fruits and vegetables to market. As the government rationed foods like sugar, butter, milk, cheese, eggs, coffee, meat and canned goods due to the war, shortages of foods became the norm.  Therefore, the United States government encouraged citizens to plant “Victory Gardens,” also known as “war gardens” or “food gardens for defense.” Nearly twenty million gardens were planted in backyards, empty lots and even city rooftops. New York City had the parks and public lawns devoted to victory gardens, as were portions of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. In Hyde Park, London sections of lawn were publicly plowed for plots to publicize the movement. Neighbors and communities, all with the goal of winning the war, formed cooperatives to meet the local needs of fresh produce.  Farm families, of course, had been planting gardens and preserving produce for generations. Now, urban gardens became the norm.  The government and businesses encouraged people to can and preserve their own produce to save the commercial produce for the troops.  People responded in mass.  The produce harvested from these gardens was estimated to be 9-10 million tons. When the war effort ended, so did the victory gardens. But the idea has lived on.

With the advent of fertilizer, grain, petroleum and energy shortages worldwide, it seems that the stage is set for the next wave of victory gardens.

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