When I was growing up, the food in our house fell into three basic food groups: things that were fried, things that were boiled, and things that came out of a can. You’d think my mother, being a nurse, would know a little something about nutrition, but convenience trumped everything else. So it’s no surprise that, as far back as 1917, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) published guidelines to help Americans eat better.
Today’s images are all from an educational packet produced by General Mills in 1955 and given free to teachers for use in teaching kids about good eating habits (and general good living tips). The packet included hand-outs for the kids, posters for the classroom, and material the teacher could reproduce and send home to parents. Click on any image for a larger version.
In 1917 the USDA divided foods into five groups: milk and meat; cereals; vegetables and fruit; fats and fatty foods; and sugars and sugary foods. The problem back then, which is still a problem to some degree today, is that the government exists as much to promote food producers as it does to protect consumers. So the USDA was hesitant to suggest, for example, that sugar and fat should be consumed less, for fear of upsetting the sugar and fat industries.
Therefore, the idea of breaking foods into specific groups was pretty much to say, “You should eat something from every group,” rather than to suggest that any one group was better for you than another.
By 1943 the USDA had categorized foods into seven basic groups, and the message remained that a proper diet should consist of something from every group. More was definitely better back then, and all foods were considered equal; that’s why they were represented mostly in a circle sliced into equal proportions.
But General Mills went beyond the seven basic food groups in its promotional material and gave tips on good cooking habits for Mom, as well. I like this image of “food as children see it,” which apparently is from a much lower angle than adults.
Of course, there had to be a trip by Barbara and Billy to the farm to see how their food is raised and to experience those big country breakfasts so they could grow and grow. Childhood obesity was less of a problem back then.
No guide to good eating would be complete without tips on proper table manners, so there was a poster showing the contrast between “good” children and “bad” ones.
Somehow, despite all this great advice, we managed to survive the era, though it’s no surprise that heart disease and diabetes are such a problem among people who were taught these dubious principles.
Now we have the food pyramid, which does give some weight to the different food groups and suggests, for example, that fats and sugars should be taken in moderation. But the USDA diet still emphasizes meat products, carbohydrates, and dairy.
I don’t know if educators today try to teach kids about good nutrition or if we’ve given up on that as a society. I know it’s been an emphasis of Michelle Obama’s, and I applaud her for that. But I also imagine there’s a group out there that feel the government should have no role in telling parents how to feed their kids. It just goes to show you that eating and politics don’t mix very well.
Follow Gene on Twitter: https://twitter.com/SAWGTags