Archives' exhibit asks 'What's Cooking, Uncle Sam?'

— -- Elizabeth Weise is acting as our guest columnist for Science Snapshot this week.

The Dept. of Agriculture's new My Plate project, meant to get Americans to eat a healthier diet and fill half their plate with fruits and veggies, may seem intrusive to some. But in reality, the U.S. government has been intimately involved in not only what we eat, but how healthy, nutritious, abundant and varied it is, for hundreds of years.

An exhibit at the National Archives in Washington D.C., " What's Cooking, Uncle Sam?" gives an excellent picture of just how much our government has done to better the foods we eat and sometimes change it. Open through January 3, the exhibit focuses on the demands that the United States have food that is "safe, cheap, and abundant."

Ever since the days of the Founding Fathers, government officials have looked to broaden the foods farmers planted. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin collected seeds, including rice and olives, to test in American fields. The first federal agricultural appropriation of $1,000 in 1839 allowed the Patent Office to collect and distribute seeds from abroad. This was at a time when there was no commercial seed industry, so farmers typically only had access to seeds they or neighbors had planted.

Starting in 1850, USDA distributed seeds under a program which at its height in 1897 shipped 1.1 billion packets of free seeds to farmers, including rare and novel plant varieties. Called the Bureau of Plant Industry, Soils and Agricultural Engineering, it was eventually put out of business by the rise of a commercial seed industry, which lobbied Congress to end the program. In 1924 the American Seed Trade Association succeeded in eliminating the USDA program.

In part to find those exotic seeds, in 1901 the Office of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction began sending explorers to the four corners of the earth to find new or improved varieties of plants that might grow well here.

Frank N. Meyer, a USDA agricultural explorer, traveled to Japan, Korea and Manchurian China. He brought home with him new varieties of apricots, soybeans and the now-famed Meyer lemon.

In 1906 the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed, giving the government the authority to conduct inspections of meat products and forbidding the sale of adulterated food products

In terms of market controls, a fascinating bit of history surrounds the invention of margarine. Emperor Louis Napoleon III offered a prize to the first person to create a butter substitute, a prize won by Frenchman Hippolyte Mège-Mouriez, who created margarine in 1870.

American dairy farmers were quick to sense the threat and pushed for multiple laws to protect their markets. The exhibit features a collection of early postcards handed out to dairy farmers to mail in to their Congressmen to push for the legislation. In 1886 Congress passed the Margarine Act, raising the price of the butter substitute through taxes and licensing until it was equal to that of butter.

There was also a tax on colored margarine, so that butter-look-alikes were more expensive. In some states margarine wasn't allowed to be colored at all. The exhibit features mug shots of butter traffickers, including this one, for John Seymour, in 1916. His crime was for selling back alley, untaxed margarine, for which he was sentenced to two years in the Georgia state penitentiary.

Federal margarine taxes were repealed in 1960. Wisconsin was the last state to repeal restrictions on margarine, in 1967.

There's also some just plain fascinating stuff here, such as a long letter famed anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote in 1942, when she was on a war time assignment to help change eating habits in the South. She turned in a three-page discourse on foodways of the South and the difficulties involved in getting deeply-rooted patterns of cooking and farming to change.

In her opinion, Southerners resisted change in all forms because it "is tied up with the precariousness of this inter-racial equilibrium upon which both sides depend. As it is an equilibrium that is continually threatened, both by the conscience of the whites, the claims of Negro leaders, and the intervention of the North, it becomes the emotional focus of any suggestions for change."

The war brought massive changes in farming and eating everywhere. Posters and films encouraged people to be careful of waste and to farm in new and more productive ways to better support the war effort.

Finally there's a section on the ongoing effort to get all Americans eating better. In the 1960s with the fears of Soviet dominance of the science and the space race, this came out as the need to give all school children a healthy lunch so they could learn and keep up.