Digging in for Victory

Legion magazine March/April 2014

When WW2 Lancaster crews sat down for their pre-flight meal before heading out over Germany, the overwhelming favourite was eggs, bacon and toast. Chances are most of it came from Canada—after the fall of France in 1940, Canada became one of Britain’s leading wartime food providers.

But this important contribution to the war effort demanded radical changes and sacrifices on the home front. Because so much Canadian farm production went overseas, Ottawa stepped in with initiatives such as encouraging citizens to grow and can their own, promoting Victory Gardens and certain “patriotic foods” like local apples and lobster. The gardens caught on with popular enthusiasm as thousands of backyards and vacant lots produced thousands of tonnes of vegetables; much of it becoming part of a plethora of creative recipes initiated by housewives.

It wasn’t the first time Canadian farms and food production had been impacted by war overseas. In 1914 and throughout the First World War, farmers were faced with a dilemma: farm or fight. On the one hand the federal government was encouraging them to increase production, while on the other pressuring everyone to enlist. Government publications like the Agricultural War Book produced by the Ministry of Agriculture set objectives for farmers, but problems arose as conscription was instituted.

Toward 1918, Ottawa confirmed the importance of food production in the face of war and conscription and declared that individual conscription exemptions could be made for farmers upon application. According to official figures, in 1918, out of the total of 161,981 farmers who applied for exemptions, just 20,449 were refused. It still put a serious strain on farm labour demands.
So in World War II the federal government adopted a more direct approach to farming from the outset. The year 1940 saw a bumper crop of wheat but traditional European markets had been cut off by the Nazi occupiers. Britain couldn’t take it all; besides, they needed meat and dairy items too. Consequently the Department of Agriculture’s slogan the following year was “Less Wheat in 1941 Will Help Win the War”. Elevator delivery quotas were introduced to limit wheat production—a predecessor to 1943’s creation of the Canadian Wheat Board. Replacement crops included sunflower seeds, rapeseed and livestock feeds. Thanks to the program, and because of the strong British demand for pork, hog production on the prairies soared 400 per cent from 1939 to 1943. Cattle and milk production increased, and chicken raising became commercialized supplying the British market with dried eggs.

With so much of the labour force serving in the military, harvesting was challenged as production grew after 1941. Enter Canadian ingenuity: a series of new farm labour forces. Organizations like the Farm Girls Brigade—composed of women under 26, the Farm Cadets and Farmerette Brigade of summer students and teachers, the Women’s Land Brigade of volunteer housewives, the Farm Commandos of spare time adult helpers and the Children’s Brigade of youngsters under 15. In Ontario for example, the summer of 1942 saw 10,000 Farmerettes, 10,000 Farm Cadets and 10,000 of the Children’s Brigade make up over half of the 55,000 Ontario Farm Service Force under the provincial government.

But it was Victory Gardens that got loads of publicity. Initially the federal government was disinclined to encourage family gardens for fear of wasting valuable fertilizer and metal resources, but finally in 1943 Ottawa launched the Canadian Victory Garden campaign. The Federal Agricultural Supplies Board initiated a vibrant radio and press coverage, and issued a free pamphlet called “The Wartime Garden”. The population loved it; they could all now do a part for the war effort.

In parallel with the program, the Health League of Canada set up a Vegetables for Victory campaign to advise Canadians of their recommended daily amounts of vitamins and minerals. The National Film Board made a series of films about proper nutrition and magazines and newspapers ran regular features on Victory Gardening—the program was heavily promoted. The gardens quickly became popular: the Calgary Herald’s 60th birthday edition of August 31st 1943 featured a multi-page spread on Eaton’s employees cultivating a ten-acre Victory Garden in the suburb of Forest Lawn, reporting “potatoes as big as your fist, turnips growing like mad and cabbage heading out lovely.” The Victory Garden at RCAF Station Summerside, P.E.I. alone reaped almost 3,000 kilos of vegetables in 1944. That was the peak year for Victory Garden output: an estimated 209,200 gardens across the country produced a total of 52,000 tonnes of vegetables.

Complementing the new Victory Gardens came new recipes and tips on canning and preserving the cornucopia, especially after rationing was introduced. Slogans like “A Garden Will Make Your Rations Go Further” and “Help Feed Those Freed from Axis Rule” kept up the momentum. Which was good for morale; not only did Victory Gardens boost vegetable production but kept everyone excited.

Preservation was critical to maintaining the supply year-round, so the Department of Agriculture promoted home canning through public demonstrations by home economists, pamphlets and a wide range of brochures. Home canning was a key element of the Victory Gardens program as the government had removed foods like carrots, beets, apples and beans from the official list of foods that were allowed to be sold to the public in cans. These were reserved for shipping overseas to feed Allied troops.

Wartime exigencies dried up many of Canada’s markets for other local harvests like apples and lobster too. So part of the government push was to promote foods like these for home consumption. Along with the Victory Gardens launch came glossy magazine ads and stories touting Canadian apples and lobster as patriotic and pleasant, together with creative recipes.

And recipes came to be the hallmark of these victory foods efforts. Thousands of new and creative recipes emerged, prompted by the new changes in ingredient availabilities. Canadian women responded to these changes in droves. Newspapers and magazines were filled with wartime ration-stretching recipes from prominent food experts like Chatelaine’s Helen Campbell, the Montreal Standard’’s Kate Aitken and the Globe and Mail’s Ann Adam. Hugely popular was the “Canada War Cake”. It was an eggless, milkless, butterless, and sugar-stretching dessert with ingredients like hot water, lard, raisins, flour, baking soda, cinnamon, and cloves.

Many of the best wartime recipes were gathered and published as community cookbooks by church groups, charities and local community organizations. For example, the Knox United Church in Regina published its Victory Cook Book, the Barrie Lion’s Club Ladies’ Auxiliary had its Wartime Economy Cook Book, and the Calgary Wesley United Church Good Cheer Club issued Cook to Win. Even political parties got into the act: in 1944 the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation put out Canadian Favourites: CCF Cookbook.

A CBC radio show called “Your Good Neighbour”, hosted by Kate Aitken, contributed in a huge way. Aitken’s fare was household hints, gossip and current events—16 times a week. Her Monday broadcasts offered a full suggested menu for the week, all geared to rationing and whichever Victory Garden vegetables happened to be in season. The show became wildly popular: at its peak, homemakers could listen to three broadcasts a day, all personally written by Aitken. Her expertise proved in government demand too: she was appointed Conservation Director for the Federal Wartime Prices and Trade Board, which regulated prices and rationing. Her wartime advice included more than food. She coined a slogan “Use it up, wear it out, make over, make do” which became a poster. Her “Remake Revue” travelled across Canada with new ideas for remaking clothing. By 1945 Aitken was averaging over 700 letters a day from fans; she answered them all; assisted by 20 secretaries. The feedback was useful—it informed her future broadcasts, pamphlets, books and columns as to what was important to wartime listeners.

Food saving and recycling extended beyond Victory Gardens and canning. Canadians on the home front cheerfully saved fat and bone scraps for the munitions industry and other scrap material under the government’s “Dig in and Dig Out the Scrap” program. Fat and bones’ utility was summarized by an advertisement in the Summerside Journal of February 11th, 1943. “Fats make glycerine and glycerine makes high explosives. Bones produce fat. Also glue for the war industry. Don’t throw away a single drop of used fat—bacon grease, meat drippings, frying fats—every kind you use. They are urgently needed to win this war …. Be a munitions maker right in your own kitchen. For instance, there is enough explosive power hidden in 4.5 kg of fat to fire 49 anti-aircraft shells. So—every day, this easy way, keep working for Victory for the duration of the war.” The campaigns showed how to save it and where to drop it off—mostly local butcher shops. Millions of pounds were eventually donated. For example, an organization called The Winnipeg Patriotic Salvage Corps reported collecting 313,230 kilos of bones and 146,510 kilos of fat over five years of wartime operations. It was a significant source for munitions, but had at least one drawback, at least for women: glycerine was also used to make cosmetics—which is why makeup was in short supply during the war years.

Other kitchen wastes were saved for pig, goat and chicken feed. And homemakers joined scrap metal and rubber recycling drives too. Surplus pots and pans could provide aluminum for aircraft manufacture. Rubber for tires was in demand. Children gathered elastic bands, women saved the rubber seals used with canning jars, and Scouts organized used tire drives. Many gas stations volunteered as drop-off points. The salvage drives became popular as everyone pitched in.

And to salvage the health of Canadians—alarmingly poor as shown by the rate of medical rejections by the military—the federal government launched a national nutrition education program in 1941. Central to the campaign, dubbed the Canadian Nutrition Program a year later, was Canada’s Official Food Rules, forerunner of the Canada’s Food Guide of today. It listed the six food groups required to maintain a healthy diet: milk, cereals and breads, fruits, vegetables, eggs and meat/fish.

Clearly these programs were effective. Despite years of rationing and sacrifice, Canadians on the home front were eating more and eating healthier than the Depression years of the ‘30s. Per capita consumption of almost all important nutrients rose during the war—a true victory for Victory Gardens.

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