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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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Poor Uncle Sam's got a lot on his plate these days: a curdled economy, an overcooked climate, a soured populace. It's enough to give a national icon a capital case of indigestion. Anti-government sentiment is running so high that half the country seems ready to swap his stars and stripes for tar and feathers.

Sure, Uncle Sam's always been kind of a drag, with his stern face and wagging finger. But to "nanny-state" haters, he's a Beltway busybody in drag, democracy's Mrs. Doubtfire, a Maryland Mary Poppins. If you believe that government is always the problem, never the solution, then you have no use for, say, more stringent food safety regulations, or Michelle Obama's "Let's Move!" campaign to combat obesity.

But the new exhibit " What's Cooking, Uncle Sam? The Government's Effect on the American Diet" at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. offers an intriguing display of documents, posters, photos and other artifacts dating from the Revolutionary War to the late 1900s which serve to remind us that our government has long played a crucial role in determining how safe, nutritious and affordable our food supply is.

So, after all this government-mandated meddling with our meals, do we eat better now than we did 100 years ago? Curator Alice Kamps didn't set out to provide a definitive answer to that question. Her intent was simply to "add to the conversation" that we're currently having about how Americans eat.

Kamps gives us plenty of fodder for discussion, if not heated debate; the exhibit, which runs until January 3, 2012, treads gingerly around hot-button topics like crop subsidies and factory farming. And it sidesteps the food stamp land mine entirely in an era when the very word "entitlements" is enough to make some folks' heads explode.

That's a shame, because there's a little-known aspect to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), aka food stamps, that encourages self-sufficiency and complements the kitchen garden revival that gets a shout-out in this exhibit, thanks to Michelle Obama and White House chef Sam Kass.

The 1973 Farm Bill included an amendment to the Food Stamp Act that enabled food stamp recipients to use their stamps to buy seeds or vegetable plants. As any gardener knows, a few dollars worth of seeds can yield a return of $50 or even $100 worth of food. Senator James Allen of Alabama, who proposed the amendment, noted that "the recipients of food stamps would thus be able to use their own initiative to produce fruits and vegetables needed to provide variety and nutritional value for their diets."

The program continues to this day, but remains largely unknown, so few food stamp recipients avail themselves of this chance to literally grow their benefits at no extra cost to Uncle Sam.

Missed opportunities aside, "What's Cooking, Uncle Sam?" does a fine job of documenting just how consistent our issues with our food chain have stayed even as the way we eat has changed radically over the past century. Consider the following nugget of dietary wisdom from the first federally funded nutrition research, launched in the 1890s. Wilbur Olin Atwater, special agent in charge of nutrition investigations in the Office of Experiment Stations, concluded: 

"The evils of overeating may not be felt at once, but sooner or later they are sure to appear--perhaps in an excessive amount of fatty tissue, perhaps in general debility, perhaps in actual disease."

We knew it then, we know it now. And yet, we eat more than ever, egged on by a schizophrenic USDA whose dual missions--encouraging healthier eating habits and promoting the interests of the food industry--are in eternal conflict.

 
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