On October 3, 1917, Detroit experienced its first “Meatless” Day during World War I. Such “meatless” and “wheatless” days were held regularly to conserve the nation’s food resources in support of the war effort.
At a time in our nation’s history when 65% of the population is classified as overweight and shopping is a popular form of entertainment, it’s hard to imagine a nation-wide effort where the majority of Americans voluntarily restricted their diets to free up food to send overseas. And yet after this country entered World War I in April, 1917, millions of men, women and children were patriotically participating in “Meatless Mondays” and “Wheatless Wednesdays.” After three years of devastating warfare, much of western Europe was in a state of ruin. Food was extremely scarce—the war had disrupted transportation, turned farmers into soldiers and left the fields that were not battlegrounds to be tended by women, children and the elderly. Many of the Allies, particularly in France and Belgium, were starving.
With the imperative of feeding the war-stricken combined with the nutritional needs of American soldiers heading for France, the newly formed U. S. Food Administration opened its home front campaign by declaring “Food will win the war.” To further its mission of persuading Americans to voluntarily restrict their use of wheat, meat, fats and sugar, the Food Administration, led by Herbert Hoover, relied on professional home economists. Home economics was central to women’s participation in this domestic issue. Rigorously organized to reach all levels of Americans, the Food Administration appointed a Home Economics Director in every state. In general, these directors were women. Their key responsibilities were creating volunteer networks, and educating women about food conservation and preservation, growing vegetables and healthful dietary practices.
With a new national presence, home economists in the administration created recipes and menus based on their knowledge of nutritionally equal substitutions such as corn meal or potatoes rather than wheat, pork and fish instead of beef. The achievements of the Food Administration can be seen in the figures for wheat exported to the Allies. Cutting back on wheat flour for one year enabled the United States to ship 120 million bushels to Europe—six times its usual amount. If “Food Will Win the War” was Herbert Hoover’s rallying cry, it was home economists who furnished the know-how. The Food Administration relied on them to create the ways and means for a nation to change its eating habits. Although the motives were strictly patriotic, this change pointed the way to healthful alternatives. According to an article in a 1929 Saturday Evening Post article, “Americans began to look seriously into the question of what and how much they were eating. Lots of people discovered for the first time that they could eat less and feel no worse—frequently much better.”
Detroit Historical Society.
Meatless Mondays Wheatless Wednesdays : Home Economists in World War I, online exhibit from the Cornell University Horace Mann Library.
Tori Avey, Discover the History of Meatless Mondays, The History Kitchen, PBS, August 16, 2013.