The Government's Role as a Nutrition Expert in the United States, 1945-80

Leah working at computer

Students

2019
College

Faculty

Professor of American History

Project Summary

This summer, my goal was to complete most of the research for my HSOC senior thesis. My primary research question is “How did the public perceive the government as a nutrition expert between 1945 and 1980?” Secondarily, I am investigating the questions “who is a nutrition expert?” and “how does the public decide who to listen to for nutrition advice?”

To investigate the public perception of the government, I went to the National Archives at College Park (NARA) and the National Agricultural Library (NAL) to analyze letters written to the Department of Agriculture, government memos, and official reports. My goal was to learn how the American public and government officials thought about nutrition and how the public used the government for nutrition information during the time.

Back in Philadelphia, I went to the Free Library to investigate women’s magazines between 1945 and 1980, specifically focusing on Parents’ Magazine, Ladies’ Home Journal, Better Homes and Gardens, and Good Housekeeping. The opinion of women at the time is particularly important because of their role in controlling the food for their households. The food women cook or buy is thus representative of what American households are eating. I was specifically looking for articles about nutrition advice and references to the government and doctors.

I am still analyzing my sources and building my argument for my thesis, which I will finish by December. From my research this summer, I have found that World War II propelled the US government’s position as a nutrition expert because of war efforts to coordinate food rationing and building strong troops. As food rationing and tight budgets continued to be issues after the war, the US Department of Agriculture remained an active nutrition “expert” in the late 1940s through the early 1950s. The government continued to be considered an expert from the mid-1950s through the 1970s, but became more drowned out by other sources such as the medical community because the USDA’s advice was relatively oversimplified.

Before taking my HSOC capstone class my junior spring, I had never considered doing humanities research, let alone spending two weeks on my own at the National Archives or dedicating my summer to independent research. Not only have I had the opportunity to delve deeper into a research project than I ever had before, but I have also been learning more about the academia world and how to pace myself for an 80-page thesis. I am very grateful to CURF for helping make this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity financially possible.