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Everything Old is New Again




Don’t forget your serving of butter.

That might seem like a joke, but when the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a nutrition chart back in 1943, the agency indeed told Americans to eat a daily serving of each of seven food groups, including food group seven: “Butter and Fortified Margarine (with added Vitamin A).”

Starting Friday, the food chart will be on display alongside other artifacts at the National Archives in Washington as part of the exhibit “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam? The Government’s Effect on the American Diet.” Running through Jan. 3, 2012, the exhibition chronicles how government programs and policies have crafted what, and how, Americans eat.

“The time just seemed right. As you know, right now there’s so much interest in food,” says curator Alice Kamps. “We thought we could add to the conversation.”

The USDA's 1943 and 2011 nutrition charts may look different (there's no butter group today) but both recommend filling about half your plate with produce.

Much of the items are indeed timely, especially that 1943 nutrition chart. Just last week, the USDA released a new nutrition chart, called MyPlate, which provides a new set of healthy eating guidelines for Americans to follow. Although MyPlate doesn’t include a serving of butter (sorry), it does mirror its 1943 predecessor in at least one way — both encourage Americans to fill about half their plates with fruits and vegetables. (Well, technically 3/7ths for the 1943 chart.)

There’s also much in the exhibit devoted to the school lunch program, another timely topic (just see our story below). Through the use of posters and other documents, the exhibit explains how in 1943, lunches expanded from a small child welfare program under the guidance of the War Food Administration. Malnourished children don’t make good soldiers, supporters of the expansion argued — an argument that mirrors one put forth today by those who argue obese children also cannot be prepared to fight.

Other notable items in the eclectic exhibit include a letter from author and activist Upton Sinclair to President Theodore Roosevelt detailing the hazards of the meatpacking industry; details of the government’s efforts to regulate food and drugs; records chronicling the travels of explorers who went abroad to discover new foods; a Revolutionary War-era document detailing food rations for troops; presidential state dinner menus; and a letter from Queen Elizabeth to President Dwight Eisenhower that includes her recipe for cooking quail. 

As the USDA prepares to issue new school nutrition standards, this World War II era poster recalls the program's early days.

Not everything is especially serious. One of Kamps’s favorite items is a poster promoting “Vitamin Donuts.” 

“I had no idea how many amazing stories and fascinating characters were in store for me,” Kamps says of putting together the exhibit. “I also did not anticipate how hungry I’d be all the time.”

Admission to the exhibit is free. Those unable to make it to Washington can check out images and descriptions of some of the artifacts via Flickr. Be sure to check out the video below, which features an appearance by celebrity chef Jose Andres, who is the chief culinary adviser for the Archives.