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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Gardening for Relief: World War II Victory Gardens

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Bright orange carrots, big white potatoes and dark green kale are a few of the vegetables that could be seen growing in yards around Milwaukee during WWII. Many residents, urban and rural, converted everyday spaces into bountiful gardens to feed their families and participate in the war effort. For those residents on the home front, this was their civic duty.

Victory gardens—or war gardens—originated during World War I, as citizens were encouraged to grow fresh produce where they lived. Propaganda posters and a national campaign promoted the idea, though the Victory garden campaign found greater success during the Second World War.


The demand on the food supply in the United States increased to epic proportions after the country became entrenched in World War II. The federal government needed food supplies to send to Europe to provide nourishment for the soldiers; production back home focused on manufacturing. 
Overseas, many parts of Europe became physically devastated, which caused a loss of large tracts of agricultural lands. Demands grew higher over the years, as food was often shipped abroad in form of economic aid to Allied countries.

The federal government urged citizens to fulfill their patriotic duty by growing and canning their own food—which provided relief to the commercial market. These Victory gardens were very successful across the nation. Local, state and national programs, featuring pamphlets, fliers and classes, taught residents to garden fruits and vegetables. Along with propaganda posters, local newspapers printed articles and ads to encourage food production in their area.

After the Milwaukee Journal printed such articles during the war, hundreds of residents planted their own Victory gardens.  One article, titled Stress Garden Needs in 1944: U.S. Agents Say 16 Million Urban Back Yard Type Plots Required, reports on the government's plea to Americans to grow their own food.  The article included a strongly worded quote to newspaper readers from M.L. Wilson, then-director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture of War Food Administration Division.  Wilson stated, “We all now realize food is definitely a weapon.”

The war ended in 1945. 
Victory gardens, which included more than 20 million gardens at their peak, had produced 40% of the American produce supply. Americans produced an estimated 1 million tons of vegetables at home.

Today there is a growing awareness of food production and availability of resources. This, in turn, has created an increase in urban gardening, similar to the Victory gardens of the World Wars. The Milwaukee-based group The Victory Garden Initiative works to transform urban spaces into places to grow food.  This group provides classes and gardening mentors and builds garden spaces in the community.

Whether food is grown to help your country or the environment, fresh produce picked from your own yard always tastes a little sweeter.

Image from the War Food Administration, U.S. Government, 1944.
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