Chow Town

National Archives’ exhibit shows federal government’s influence on American diet

The bright yellow poster caught my eye. The “everyday man” with his produce. The banner asks, “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?” There was that iconic Uncle Sam in the corner, in his tall striped hat.

I was intrigued. Food, cooking, dinnertime — it was calling to me. Yet, the next line caused me to pause. “The Government’s Effect on the American Diet.”

We cook what we want, don’t we?

The poster is for a free exhibit at the National Archives of Kansas City. The National Archives is charged with keeping the federal records — from critically important, historic documents such as the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights to the records families turn to when researching family history and military service. It has locations scattered over the country, from Anchorage, Alaska, to Washington D.C., and it is free to visit.

Nestled in what looks like a nondescript old warehouse next to Union Station at 400 W. Pershing Road is the Kansas City branch. It happens that right now, and through the next few months, Kansas City has a display on food and the American diet.

Plan to read a lot — for the documents on display are a storehouse of food trivia. You will exclaim more than once, “I didn’t know that.”

For example, there were crimes against butter. Oleomargarine was introduced in the late 1800s and dairy farmers demanded protection from the “artificial butter.” A tax was levied on margarine in 1886. By 1902, 32 states banned coloring margarine yellow to make it look more like butter, so if you wanted a yellow spread, you had to mix in your own yellow food coloring. Butter was serious business. If someone was convicted of illegal oleomargarine commerce, as Joseph Wirth was, you spent time at the federal prison in Leavenworth.

You also might not have known that if you enlisted in the Revolutionary War your daily ration included one quart of spruce beer, a beverage made from molasses and spruce twigs.

Far beyond the oddities of history, I was struck with the similarities from yesteryear to today. While the displays are historical, many issues such as these seemed familiar and suggested current food topics to me.

In 1890, Wilbur Atwater, who quantified calories and exercise, concluded that Americans eat too much fat and do not get enough exercise.

In 1944, the government wanted consumers to be more vitamin conscious and emphasized eating fruits and vegetables.

The U.S. government has been promoting good nutrition since the late 1890s. In 1894, they produced their first food guide. In the 1930s they worked to avoid malnutrition but since the 1970s their goal has been to teach people to avoid over consumption.

Increased fish consumption was endorsed in 1918 — and we were encouraged to “save the products of the land” and to substitute fish, beans and cheese for meat.

Home gardens were publicized as an ideal way to cut food costs and encourage better nutrition. The government promoted home gardening during the World Wars and Depression of the early 20th Century, and they continue to encourage urban and backyard gardens today.

Upton Sinclair reported the horrors of the meat packing industry in his famed book, The Jungle, but it did not stop there. Letters between President Roosevelt and Sinclair revealed much about the tainted food supply. The Pure Food and Drugs Act of June 30, 1906, caused the government to be in the business of protecting Americans from rotten, misbranded and tainted food.

In 1908, the federal government seized a shipment of contaminated eggs while in 1909 it was ketchup. Today, it might be eggs, salad greens, meat or fruits contaminated with E. coli or other bacteria.

Frozen foods required a great deal of research to overcome problems regarding poor color, poor flavor and even possible contamination. One of the most successful frozen foods to come from this research was orange juice. What would a day be like without a morning glass of orange juice and how many frozen foods do we enjoy now?

Many crops grown in the U.S. today are credited to agriculture research sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In the early 1900’s, the USDA sent plant hunters to the far reaches of the earth in search of specimens that could weather the American climate.

We can thank them for the Russian wheat grown today and the varieties of soybeans that came to us from Korea. One successful plant hunter was Frank Meyer, and the famed Meyer lemon was named for him. He found it in Asia and it was thought to be a cross between a lemon and an orange or Mandarin orange. Today, the juicy, sweet Meyer lemon is highly prized and it is a trendy “new” food in many food magazines.

A video revealed plant research in 1976 and it featured scientists who could culture single plant cells. It was their hope that they could produce ideal plants or create new species. News today of genetically modified foods continue to stir questions and leads to heated discussions on the flavor, safety, production qualities and nutrition of genetically modified foods.

While I have never tasted spruce beer, I am thankful that it is no longer popular and I am grateful that many poisonous, tainted foods are no longer a part of our diet. I am also grateful that early scientists and food leaders studied issues that affect us today.

Most of all, I respect the fact that some things never change and our ever changing, ever evolving diet just might not be as new as we think it is.

This exhibit is open Tuesday – Saturday, from 8:00 AM to 4:00 PM. For additional information, call 816-268-8000 or check out

National Archives’ website


Kathy Moore is one of two cookbook authors and food consultants that make up The Electrified Cooks. Her most recent cookbook is Triple Slow Cooker Entertaining. She develops the recipes for the “Eating for Life” column for The Kansas City Star and is a member of Les Dames d'Escoffier. She blogs at