At the start of Ohio’s stay-at-home order I, like many others, spent a lot of time working near my window at home, longing for warmer weather and greener views. Over the last two months, I have watched as leafless late winter trees blossomed back to color and now return to lush. Since March, a favorite spring activity of mine—attending local farmers markets—has become accessible again. Of course, attending them looks much different at the moment with new safety protocols in place, but nevertheless, we are all still able to access fresh, local food and support our nearby farmers and food artisans. For a short period when farmers markets were not yet deemed essential; when trips to the grocery store were—and still are—done sparingly; and when stories of our global food supply chain hurting due to virus spread and disruption in typical shopping patterns began surfacing, an old practice came to my mind—and I was not alone. 

A New York Times headline from March 25th read, “Food Supply Anxiety Brings Back Victory Gardens.” The Los Angeles Times published “A Short History of the Victory Garden, or How to Get Through the COVID-19 Crisis by Planting your own Food” in mid-April. From The Seattle Times just a few weeks ago came the headline, “A Beginner’s Guide to Starting a Coronavirus Victory Garden.” These stories by major publications were certainly not the only ones to call back to the Victory Garden movement, growing your own food, and how these themes resonate today. The Warren Tribune Chronicle recently published the story “Grow your own Food;” though not a reference to Victory Gardens, the sentiment that growing can allow one to become resilient is still the same. 


The Victory Garden Movement

The original Victory Garden movement occurred during WWI and WWII, when every citizen was urged to plant what was then referred to as a war garden in the soil and space they had available, no matter how small. The purpose was to support the nation’s at-risk food supply and to supply food for soldiers fighting abroad. People grew food on their lawns, rooftops, and even fire escapes as warnings about national food shortages and consistent calls to action from the administration persuaded them that, “food will win the war.” President Woodrow Wilson created the US Food Administration in 1917 to “assure supply, distribution, and conservation of food during wartime; facilitate transportation of food and present monopolies of hoarding, and to maintain government power over foods by using voluntary agreements and a licensing system.”

Herbert Hoover led the US Food Administration, calling on Americans to change the way they ate, conserved, and secured food. Such things as “wheatless Mondays” and “porkless Saturdays” were implemented, and American’s followed offering their services in the line of patriotic duty. Victory Garden propaganda urged these patriots to “sow the seeds of victory!” Books on gardening, preserving, and canning were provided form the administration for doing so. At the close of WWI, there were an estimated 5 million victory gardens planted in support.   


Seeds of Victory

The nation was mobilized again when the US entered WWII. This time as food rationing was implemented in 1942, Americans were told that growing their own food could offer a supplement, as well as allow for them to save money and improve their health. In 1943, Life Magazine published the article, Victory Gardens: they are springing up in nooks and crannies all over the U.S.” . The article included photographs of victory gardens that had transformed land in front of San Francisco’s City Hall, a plot in downtown New Orleans, the lawn of St. Patrick’s Home for the Aged in the Brox, among other unlikely places. The results of the second wave of collective growing spoke for themselves. It is estimated that at one point during WWII, 40% of America’s fresh vegetables were produced from some 20 million victory gardens across the US. After the war, the need for such a level of food production and conservation at home ceased and so did fervent upkeep of victory gardens, so only a small fraction continued on. 




Sowing Our Own Victory Gardens

In 2020, over 100 years after its conception, the victory garden movement has come to life again. This time the impetus for doing so does not come because of a distant war abroad. It is one spurred by the need to stay at home, to be as productive as we can be at a distance, to curb anxiety and pressure over food supply and access, and support the global effort to contain the spread of COVID-19. This movement has not trickled down from the federal government like those previous; it is a patriotic, grassroots movement to join together during this time of separation and seek a form of control and resilience. As I look out my window at a greener May landscape, I imagine a small garden, the joy of picking warm tomatoes, raspberries, and lettuce—my own little plot of resilience. 

More reading on starting your own food garden:

Image credits:
Herbert Bayer, poster, c. 1941-43. Courtesy of Library of Congress.
Source: National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the US Food Administration, c. 1917-1920.
Source: National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the US Food Administration, c. 1917-1920.