What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?

Student Writer | Noëlle Spillmann

Perhaps the most overlooked form of government intervention is its involvement in the food industry. Despite coming into contact with or worrying about food on a daily basis – meal plans, diets and counting macros or calories dictating when what is being eaten and where – few people question how the government may have been involved in what is landing on our plates. From economic involvement in the shape of subsidies to regulations that ensure what we consume is safe, and even attempting to influence eating habits, the involvement of government in the food industry is multifaceted and takes place at all levels of production and consumption.

The 2011 exhibition What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?attempted to capture this involvement and traced the U.S. government’s contribution and effects on what Americans eat throughout history, in the shape of a collection of letters, photographs, postcards, pamphlets, posters, films, and radio programs. The exhibition has now become available in a free interactive catalogue that can be downloaded from the national archives. Featuring the mugshots of black market margarine vendors that were captured to appease disgruntled dairy farmers or telling the story of plant explorers sent out to find new food plants and returning with mangos and Meyer lemons as well as covering political milestones in the history of food regulation such as Pure Food and Drugs Act, the catalogue is not only an entertaining read but also provides an account of U.S. food history that is as varied as the role played by the government in it. In light of current moves in U.K. nutritional politics (the increase in sugar tax being an example) it is most certainly worth a read.

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