By Michael Crupain, MD, MPH
The National Archives is the repository for important US government documents. At the main branch in Washington DC, documents such as the Constitution and Declaration of Independence are available for view. Recently a new exhibit was set up just down the hall from these great papers titled “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam? The Government’s Effect on the American Diet.” The small exhibit which runs until January 3rd 2012 uses items from the Archives to explain a number of different US policies that have effected how food is grown, regulated, and eaten.
The exhibit starts out with an interesting look at how in the 19th century USDA employees such as Frank Meyer traveled around he world looking for exotic fruits and vegetables to bring back to the United States. There is a lovely drawing of a small sweet lemon from China hanging on the first wall, which we now know as the Meyer Lemon. Just a few yards away from this is an interesting box containing papers about the Margarine Act (which forbid yellow Margarine from being sold) and facts about people who were imprisoned for breaking it.
The exhibit continues to introduce how manufactures were adulterating food and how the regulation of foods and eventually the FDA came in existence to protect the food supply.
At about the midpoint of the hall visitors are confronted by a giant poster of the “Basic 7.” This 1940’s precursor to the food plate the USDA now uses to guide what American’s should eat, is really not that different from current guidelines, except maybe for the “butter group!”
Another interesting section of the exhibit focuses on the development of nutrition science and metabolism. There is a great poster from the 1930’s that has a numbers of commons foods and shows what a 100 calorie portion looks like!
The last few walls of the hall have posters from WWI and WWII that encouraged people to eat less meat and plant gardens. There is even a poster promoting eating dairy instead of meat on Meatless Monday. There is also a section on war rations. The exhibit finishes up with a section on school food and a good-sized section on presidents. Notable in the president section are a piece of Lincoln’s China, Jacqueline Kennedy’s Fish Chowder Recipe, Lady Bird Johnson’s chili recipe, and President Eisenhower’s Vegetable Soup Recipe.
Overall it’s a good exhibit. If you are in the DC area, I would reccomend chechig it out. The most interesting part to me was that for over 100 years the US Government has been trying to get the public to eat more fruits and vegetables and smaller portions, but has yet to succeed. This is a little bit of a downer for someone like myself who would like to improve public health by improving diet. However, the efforts by the US government that were displayed in the exhibit were focused on educating the public, but not in changing the food environement. As more and more people start to realize the importantce that this food environment has on our health, hopefully we will be able to make meaningful changes that do lead to a healthier society. Also of note was the absence of any discussion of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly Food Stamps), which is a major vehicle for the government to influence what Americans eat.