MS. REBECCA SHEIR
We'll make our way out of The Source now and head just a few blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue to the National Archives. That's the site of a new exhibit called "What's Cooking Uncle Sam?" which explores how the U.S. government influences what we Americans put down the hatch.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Environment reporter, Sabri Ben-Achour, recently visited the archives to speak with someone intimately involved with the exhibit.
MS. ALICE CAMPS
I'm Alice Camps and I'm a curator at the National Archives. We are in "What's Cooking, Uncle Sam?: The Government's Effect On The American Diet," in the Lawrence F. O'Brien Gallery at the National Archives.
MR. SABRI BEN-ACHOUR
You know, when I heard about this, I wondered, when did Uncle Sam first started getting involved in the food we eat?
Uncle Sam or the American government has been involved in the food we eat since there's been a government. Ever since Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson brought seeds back from their diplomatic missions, seed collection and distribution was one of the very first activities of the government in regards to food and agriculture.
The government sent explorers all around the world to collect different plants and to try them in our soils and I can show you over here. This is a photograph of Frank N. Meyer, who was one the early explorers in the early 1900s. This may shows just one of his expeditions.
This map is of Asia basically?
Yes, and he traveled all across Asia, through the mountains of Mongolia and Siberia and Turkistan and his travels were largely on foot. So he covered thousands of miles and sometimes under very dangerous conditions.
What was he looking for exactly?
They were looking for plants with traits that they could either breed with our plants, you know, maybe drought resistance or wilt resistance in spinach and also a variety.
Did it work?
Indeed. One of his more famous discoveries was the Meyer Lemon. He also brought back apricots, persimmons, all kinds of things, soybeans.
So did we not have, like, apricots before he came back with them?
That's right and even some plants that you might think of as being very American like oranges.
A lot of the government's involvement in food especially the farm seems to have to do with research to help farmers. Can you show me what that looked like back in the day?
Sure. A lot of the research happened at experiment stations across the country. Over here, for example, we have a photograph of hybrid corn, of course, that's had a major impact on agriculture in this country. And in addition to the research, of course, then they taught farmers these new techniques and methods that they had learned.
And there are some really wonderful examples of that. You see a lot of creativity and humor in the ways that the Department of Agriculture went about teaching people. This pig cafeteria, for example, it's a photograph of an exhibit that was created to show farmers what to feed pigs.
And so you see this pig that's carrying a cafeteria tray and it's wearing a dinner napkin and goes along and picks up all the foods that he needs to keep him healthy.
When this country started to industrialize, that marked a big turning point in food and for how the government interacts with us on food. I understand it wasn't pretty back then, the food.
That's very true. There was no regulations so producers could put basically anything they wanted into their food. And candy, for example, in the mid 1800s was notoriously dangerous, cheap candy that you could buy on the street. There is a small notebook that I found, it's from about 1880.
And it was notes kept by a chemist who was investigating foods that had been problematic. And on the first page of this notebook, he's writing about candy, a sample of candy that he had collected that had caused two girls to become ill and killed another young girl. So this was, you know, this was life and death.
It's interesting to go back and find out that in the early 1900s, people knew almost nothing about human nutrition. The very first nutrition studies done in American were done in the Department of Agriculture around the turn of the century. And that was also the beginning of the government food guide and we can look at some of those.
In 1911, for example, the very first food guide was published. It's called "Food For Young Children," and it has the very first food groups. There were five at the time that they defined. Milk, bread and other cereal foods. Butter.
Butter was its own food group?
Yes. The focus at that time was on getting enough calories because there was great concern about malnutrition in this country. Vegetables and fruits was another one and simple sweets was also its own.
Candy and butter, two food groups. That's great. You know, at the end of the day, what do you want people to take from this exhibit?
I'm hoping that by looking into the past and discovering that many of our current concerns about food go back hundreds of years. That these are not new concerns. I'm hoping that looking at these records will give people some perspective and insight into our current situation.
Thank you so much. I really appreciate you walking me through here.
That was WAMU's Sabri Ben-Achour, talking with curator, Alice Camps, at the National Archives. "What's Cooking, Uncle Sam?" runs through January 2012 and there's a whole lot more to see. From the outlying of margarine to the U.S. military's influence on the American diet.
You can find more information and some pretty juicy photos on our website, metroconnection.org.
Time for a quick break, but when we get back, "Crossing the District's Food Deserts."
I've been grateful for the friends that have been able to give me a ride or what have you, but I mean, there's times when you just buck up and you just carry your groceries. I mean, that's what you do.
That and more in a minute on "Metro Connection," here on WAMU 88.5.
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