U.S. National Archives: the Table

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Learn about how our Government has affected our eating habits and its unintentional effect on our appetites

The most direct way the Government affects what Americans eat is by cooking for them. There are two groups of Americans routinely called to Uncle Sam’s table: soldiers and school children. Many eating habits have been altered as a result. Mid-20th-century mess halls and school cafeterias served ethnically diverse populations.

For some, especially first-generation Americans, Uncle Sam’s cooking was foreign–white bread was a revelation for many children of immigrants. Some came to prefer this “American” food and began to ask for it at home. In the 1940s, nutritionists standardized menus for the military to ensure troops were ingesting enough vitamins and nutrients. The Armed Forces couldn’t afford to have spice-averse soldiers skip meals or spun “exotic” fruits and vegetables, so regional specialties and ethnic dishes were scrubbed.

The National School Lunch Program also operated under strict nutritional guidelines, and, like military food, “Americanized” a generation of taste buds. Federal involvement in school lunch began as an effort to stabilize the price of farm commodities during the Great Depression. The USDA purchased surplus foods and donated them to schools. When President Harry Truman signed the School Lunch Act in 1946, its intent was still to serve agriculture, but also to strengthen children through good nutrition, and thereby, strengthen the nation.

Uncle Sam sets his most elegant and idiosyncratic table for an elite group: the Presidents of the United States and their guests. White House fare usually reflects the personal tastes of its occupants. The individuals who have orchestrated meals for the Presidents include a world-class French chef (John F. Kennedy), a housekeeper (Franklin Roosevelt), and even an army quartermaster (Ulysses S. Grant). Over the years, Americans who wanted to eat in Presidential style—be it high brow or low—have requested their recipes.


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