Harvest on the Home Front
Victory Gardens a winning strategy for America, then and now
Imagine a future in which a large percentage—or even a majority—of the food you eat is produced locally and organically throughout the year, a future in which the food is not only tastier and healthier, but also costs less and uses fewer fossil fuels and wasteful packaging.
Seem like a far-off pipe dream? The Victory Garden movements of the first and second World Wars, in which home, school and community gardens across the country produced almost half of the fruits and vegetables consumed in the U.S., teach us that this vision of a more sustainable, healthy, delicious future is not so farfetched after all.
Victory Gardens (AKA “War Gardens”) were born during World War I as way to address public food shortages and boost morale, empowering civilians to contribute to the war effort and enjoy the fruits of their labor by planting food in yards, parks, on rooftops and anywhere else food would grow. The Victory Garden movement was promoted and supported by governments not only here but also in other countries at war like the U.K. and Japan. It reached its zenith in the U.S. during World War II, during which over 20 million American gardens produced an estimated 8–10 million tons of food. By 1944, about 40% of fruits and vegetables consumed in this country were grown in Victory Gardens!
The Midwest has a special place in Victory Garden history, as many of its cities, including Chicago and Cleveland, led the nation in urban food production during WWII. With over 170,000 gardens and the nation’s largest Victory Garden in its North Park neighborhood (with 800 families participating), Chicago’s Victory Garden program was used as a model for other programs across the country.
Michiana was no stranger to the Victory Garden movement either. While historical references for Victory Gardens here are scant, the few detailed written accounts out there, in addition to the living memories carried by members of the “Greatest Generation,” point to a thriving movement during both World Wars. In South Bend, Indiana, Oliver Chilled Plow Works set aside 50 acres for over 300 of its workers and their families during World War I as a way to help both themselves and their country. Each family was given a 50- by 100-foot plot. In July 1942, Benton Harbor, Michigan’s, News-Palladium announced a large Victory Garden exhibit and tour. The event featured community and backyard gardens from Benton Harbor and St. Joseph, some of which would be selected for a larger, countywide Victory Garden meeting later that season. Ask around, and you’re likely to find all kinds of Victory Garden stories from those who experienced them 70 years ago.
If home and community gardens were able to meet almost half of the nation’s fresh produce needs in a time of war and scarcity, why can’t we do the same—and more—now? Keep in mind that 90% of the people who grew Victory Gardens had never gardened before.
Today, there’s a whole new generation of “yardeners”, community and school gardeners and farmers growing food wherever they can (and not just during the warmer months). With growers increasingly using backyard cold frames, greenhouses and even old warehouses with hydroponic and aquaponic systems for year-round production, the potential for meeting the majority of our fruit and vegetable needs locally, even with Michiana’s winters, has never been greater.