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Reflections on WWII Government Gardening Campaigns


During regional natural disasters, such as the hurricanes that frequently slam into the American southeast, the tornadoes that smash through the American Midwest, and winter blizzards that cripple entire regions of the south-land unexpectedly, local grocers and big box stores run steadily exhaust their supply of resources as residents of the area ransack store shelves for anything they can find.

These types of events expose the fragility of industrialized food chains. We witness this vulnerability firsthand when disaster strikes, yet return to relying on this same ineffective system, relishing in the complacency of depending on others to provide the essentials to keep us alive.

Recent research and scientific studies indicate that gardening is good for your health, but the bigger question is; can gardening play a role in developing food security and sustainability in urban areas? As luck would have it, history shows us the answer.

Although several people around the world practice urban gardening concepts, real world campaigns urging others participate in gardening to ensure food security and sustainability occurred in several allied countries during WWII.

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Home Grown Food Campaigns of WWII

Great Britain, one of the early participants in WWII, experienced massive food shortages as the war raged on. To combat this food shortage, urban and suburban gardening campaigns were launched under the slogan “Dig for Victory,” which began as early as 1939.

Two years later, in 1941 Australia began looking at their own food production and determined that by 1943 they would also experience serious food shortages if they did not take immediate action to curtail the situation. As such, Australia launched its own wartime gardening campaign under the slogan “Grow Your Own.”

The United States launched its own WWII gardening campaign at about the same time, referring to them as “Victory Gardens.” The US Department of Agriculture urged American citizens to grow their own food in an effort to help win the war, and by 1943 an estimated 18 million “Victory Gardens” existed in the United States, more than 12 million of them located in urban/suburban settings.

In all of these countries, various forms of print and visual media were used to announce the campaigns and inform citizens of their patriotic duties in the garden. Movies, posters, radio-newspaper-magazine ads, pamphlets and brochures were all used to spread the word and get citizens onboard with growing their own food as a means to help the war effort. These government supported campaigns were intended to reduce the demand placed on the industrial food chains of these countries. They were also presented as a means of offering healthy substitutes for the food issued through ration cards/stamps programs. This would also ease the demand on transportation infrastructure which would reduce unnecessary usage of raw materials needed for war, such as fuel. These programs even filtered down through municipal organizations and school programs.

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Although statistical data surrounding the effectiveness of these campaigns is non-existent, associated evidence indicates that home grown food production increased significantly during this time; it did however hit plenty of obstacles throughout the war effort.

As manufacturing plants retooled to lend assistance to the war effort, shortages of seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides were experienced by those looking to participate in the gardening campaigns. Fertilizer could’ve been much easier to come by had livestock not been restricted in urban areas long before the war started for these countries. In some places the demand for fertilizer was so intense that local residents would stand street-side with a pail and shovel, waiting for horses to pass by so they could collect free fertilizer for their gardens.

Artificial fertilizers were also difficult to obtain, and waste composting concepts required skill, time, and a place to store the waste where it wouldn’t be stolen.

In addition to these shortages, the work force in these countries was also in short supply. Men who were able-bodied and old enough, were enlisted into the military and sent off to fight in the war. Those who could not be enlisted in the military were showing their support by working long hours in manufacturing plants making the weapons of war. This left very few people with time to tend and manage a garden. As such, some of these countries established “gardening armies” full of women and older children, whose responsibility became tending the gardens on both public and private land.

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Learning from the Past

WWII was not the first-time wartime gardening campaigns were promoted by governments around the world. In fact, most of these countries also had an active role in WWI, and these same gardening efforts were promoted at that time too.

One of the most important lessons to take away from these war time gardening campaigns is that private and public gardening concepts can help create sustainable urban/suburban food systems. Today the urban setting has changed drastically since WWII, and will continue to change well into the future, which means we will require specific planning to ensure these gardening concepts continue to promote urban/suburban sustainability goals.

As an example, gardens require plenty of space. That space must receive plenty of sunshine and very little shade. This is why municipals and cities need to make arrangements to incorporate parks and open spaces with an eye on the future. These types of areas will be far more prosperous and productive should they need to be used for growing a sustainable food supply.

In addition to open air land, sustainable urban/suburban food cultivation requires knowledge, experience and time. Quite a bit of urban/suburban food production today relies on purchased gardening materials, such as transplant seedlings, herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers. A truly sustainable urban/suburban gardening concept must incorporate strategies for allocating resources locally, such as seed harvesting, saving and storage, composting, raising small scale livestock, collecting and storing rainwater, etc. These gardens will also require people with the knowledge, experience and requisite skill sets to tend to and manage these gardens on a daily basis.

Although we are not in need of staging urban/suburban gardens on the same scale as during previous wartime efforts, we cannot afford to ignore the lessons learned through the implementation of those campaigns if we hope to increase the sustainability of our current urban/suburban gardening concepts.

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