Food at the battefields

This 6th and last lecturing period of the year, I run a capita selecta course on Food Culture with some of the students from the regular course in February in which we read and discuss classics in food culture together. Like two years ago, there is a small but dedicated group of students eager to read entire books rather than the usual scientific papers. We just finished ‘Paradox of the Plenty’ by Harvey Levenstein, a very dense but easy and often funny to read social history of eating in the U.S. spanning from 1920s to about the 1990s. One of the stories to which we awed with amazement is about the abundance, diversity and quality of the food supply and diet of American soldiers during World War II. “Those who overran American positions often expressed amazement at discovering the quantity and variety of food GI’s had at their disposal, as did those fortunate enough to be taken prisoner by the Americans” Levenstein writes (p89).

Highly influenced by the embryonic nutrition science, it was believed that the population was gravely malnourished and had just about enough or latent deficiencies of many if not all of the just discovered vitamines. Hence, “modernizing military men had revamped their military rations” to “provide each soldier with all the necessary nutrients and at least five thousand calories a day” (p92,93). FIVE thousand? This provoked especially the nutrition students.IMG_0153

Of course we had no idea about how current troops are being fed at battlefields until one of the students revealed a box she had received from her work at the Food Bank – after much talking and persuasion because the Food Bank decided not to distribute the army donation. The Nato approved ration for 1 person gives insight in the current nutrition ideas and food technology usage. Breakfast and lunch in combat times consists of a box instant powders (soups, lemonade, chocolate milk), patés (mexican chili beans) and biscuits accompanied with chocolate bars, mentos, dextrose.

The amazement at the crazy Americans was brought home with opening this box. After all, we always look West, they are only a bit earlier.

3 thoughts on “Food at the battefields

  1. Interesting, Petra! Curiously, the dining hall rations at US military academies are still “fortified”, so to speak – at least I believe so. I was an athlete during my university years, and I remember traveling to compete versus the US Naval Academy. There we ate in the dining hall. I don’t remember how we “found this out” – I think through some coaches / teammates were military or ex-military??? – but it turns out that, still today (or at least, say, 2001), they load up the “rations” of soldiers and sailors with all kinds of supplemental stuff – not only to add vitamins, but also to add extra calories – the latter of which I think is a perplexing choice given that the US Association of Retired Generals and Admirals ALSO just published a report calling for better school nutrition to combat the problem that *** 27% *** of would-be recruits are ineligible for service due to obesity … and 66% of active-duty military are overweight or obese (according to this report of the Military Health Service ) [though, to be fair, I think this is probably an overestimate, as most military folks I know are rather a bit more muscular than your Average Joe …].

  2. Hi Leah,

    That is a fun anekdote! And indeed I read about the worry that the nation will become to fat to fight in the newspaper. It is very very complex material, the book Paradox of Plenty gives a good historical overview albeit not focused on analysing obesity. Another good source are 4 documentaries called ‘the weight of the nation’ see
    Cheers Petra

  3. Actually, from a discursive point of view, the “Weight of the Nation” series was extremely conflictual in the public health and sustainable food and social justice communities! Certainly it raises many, many, many valid points, which I agree with. At the same time, it dramatizes, villanizes, and stigmatizes the overweight with an almost theatric comicality – (did you notice even the dramatic music they used???!!) – which I think is probably not the correct approach to the problem. It gets a little bit at the debate between “obesity-as-THE-epidemic-of-our-day” vs “obesity-socially-constructed-as-epidemic-but-it’s-not-really” … Julie Guthman is great on this topic, I think. (And very controversial – which I like!) Also, if you’re interested in the “discourse” around “Weight of the Nation” – check out the public “discussions” held on Twitter, Facebook, and the blogosphere – I think they say a lot about the different ‘stakeholders’ in the debate and their many different perspectives …
    I will check out Paradox of Plenty, I have heard good things about it …

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