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Do We Eat Better Than We Did 100 Years Ago?

A new exhibit at the National Archives looks at the effects of the government's involvement in our food over the last century.

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Check out the USDA's 1945 Food Group Poster (a precursor to the Food Pyramid, which debuted in 1992). A pie chart lays out "The Basic 7" food groups we should eat from each day for optimal health. Below it lies the message, "In addition to the basic 7, eat any other foods you want."

No wonder Uncle Sam looks so pained; he's been getting his arm twisted by lobbyists for nearly 100 years. Take the case of the seed giveaway program Congress created in 1839. The original purpose of the program was to expand the range of foods our farmers grew and encourage them to test rare plant varieties. By 1897, the USDA was distributing 1.1 billion free seed packets to farmers, many of them more common vegetable and flower varieties.

The program was wildly popular with farmers, but a thorn in the side of the growing commercial seed industry. So, in 1929, after intense lobbying from the American Seed Trade Association, Congress scrapped the seed giveaway.

The exhibit does highlight Uncle Sam's more laudable legacies, such as the passage in 1906 of the Pure Food and Drugs Act and Meat Inspection Act, and the establishment of the School Lunch Program in 1946, which has since become "one of the most popular social welfare programs in our nation's history," according to the exhibit catalog. Geez, if that's how we fund our most popular programs, I'd hate to see what kind of resources we allocate to the ones we like least.

"What's Cooking, Uncle Sam?" strikes a nice balance between the wonky, somber food policy and safety segments and more lighthearted elements such as White House menus featuring favorite presidential recipes and those classic wartime propaganda posters encouraging us to can, garden and conserve. Other visual treats include the beautiful botanical illustrations commissioned by the USDA in the late 1800s to document the discoveries of the plant hunters we dispatched to far-off lands in pursuit of new fruit and vegetable varieties.

One of our more notable agricultural explorers, the intrepid, fur-hatted Frank N. Meyer, introduced us to some 2,500 new plants, including the lemon that bears his name. Meyer walked hundreds of miles through China at the turn of the century in his quest to "skim the earth in search of things good for man."

Now, we outsource the task of finding horticultural breakthroughs to corporations whose motto could be "to scorch the earth in search of things bad for man." Uncle Sam doesn't commission botanical illustrations or promote rare seeds anymore, either; for that, I have to rely on my friends at the Hudson Valley Seed Library. Kicky propaganda posters? Back to the private sector--see Joe Seppi's brilliant Victory Garden of Tomorrow posters on Etsy.

Uncle Sam hasn't got the time or the budget for such extracurricular activities these days. He's got his hands full just trying to maintain our food chain's mediocre status quo. As Mark Bittman noted this week, Republicans are on a tear to gut vital food safety and nutrition programs in the name of deficit reduction. Nevermind that the programs in question actually save us billions of dollars in health care costs in the long run. What's cooking, Uncle Sam? Off the record, he'd probably tell you that what's cooking is our goose.

Kerry Trueman is the co-founder of You can follow her on Twitter.

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