During World War I, hundreds of thousands of American children joined the U.S. School Garden Army and helped feed a hungry nation at war.
Yankee farms lost considerable labor because young men went off to war. Or munitions factories offered high pay to those who didn’t enlist. But demand for food kept rising. Starving Europeans and Allied armies needed food, as did America’s large new army. “War rages in France,” blared one U.S. Food Administration poster. “They cannot fight & raise food at the same time. We must help them.”
“Food will win the war,” said President Woodrow Wilson. Herbert Hoover, as head of the U.S. Food Administration, avoided rationing by urging Americans to conserve food. “Meatless Mondays,” “Wheatless Wednesdays” and “Porkless Saturdays” encouraged Americans to eat less so more could be sent overseas.
The Women’s Land Army, or farmerettes, also helped supply the farm labor to help feed the country and the military.
Can’t Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm
Charles Lathrop Pack, a wealthy timber baron from Michigan, had an idea. He thought the food supply could be increased without using farms, farm labor or trucks and trains needed to transport supplies for the war effort. He also believed it would be easier to inspire Americans at home to raise food on empty land in cities than to send them off to farm.
“Ambitious young men and women will not remain in the country where comforts are denied and where advantages of social life and education are few,” he said. “But they will be glad to farm in the city.”
His idea had already worked in Michigan during the depression that followed the Panic of 1893. Detroit Mayor Hazen Pingree, a transplanted Maine shoemaker, allowed poor people to plant vegetable gardens on vacant lots. His Potato Patch Plan won national attention and was then replicated in cities throughout the country.
Pack revived the Potato Patch Plan for the war effort, calling the urban potato patches ‘victory gardens’ or ‘liberty gardens.’
Pack and others then formed the U.S. National War Garden Commission to inspire and educate Americans to plant victory gardens. The then commission churned out propaganda. It sent out posters, pamphlets and lesson plans with advice on how to start a victory garden.
One poster promoted the ‘free book’ with the legend “Can vegetables, fruit and the Kaiser too.” It was illustrated with jars of tomatoes, peas, and Kaiser Wilhelm with the label ‘Monarch Brand Unsweetened.”
Local organizations embraced the effort.
The Norwich, Conn., Chamber of Commerce and the New London County Improvement League sent out cards asking people if they had available land to cultivate. They also asked people if they wanted to work on a home garden.
“The war with Germany has brought to every one of us an opportunity to render patriotic service in promoting economic preparedness and social welfare,” read a committee notice in the Norwich Bulletin on April 18, 1917.
The School Garden Army
President Wilson decided to further link food security with national security by starting The U.S. Garden Army. The War Department then funded it and the Bureau of Education developed a national curriculum.
Its motto appeared in much of its literature:
A garden for every child
Every child in a garden.
In New England, Boston Common was the epicenter of the effort to enlist schools in the effort.
School authorities established demonstration gardens on the Common, according to the government publication, School Life, Volume 3. Meanwhile, children in nearby schools carried on the work of producing food for their families. Teachers from around the country were expected to visit Boston’s demonstration gardens.
New Hampshire Gardens
New Hampshire tried to reach every schoolchild in the state. Practically every city and town had one or more companies enlisted in the School Garden Army by 1919, with nearly 40,000 total pupils — about a tenth of the population. Manchester had the most, with about 3,500, closely followed by Concord with 3,000. Then Portsmouth and Keene followed with about 1,200 each, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior’s pamphlet, School Supervised Gardening in New Hampshire.
New Hampshire had high-minded goals for its School Garden Army:
To make the Granite State a Garden State; to give to the young people of the new generations the sturdy qualities which were developed in those early years when New Hampshire boys and girls were reared on farms and went southward and westward to become leaders in new communities.
The states also aimed to bring into the schools the “vital interest found only in experience with realities.”
Children in the New Hampshire School Garden Army wore the USSGA insignia, a service bar with crossed hoe and rake.
By the end of the war, 5 million victory gardens grew in the United States. The U.S. would then revive Victory gardens two decades later during World War II.
This story was updated in 2021.