As the U.S. grappled with the impacts of World War I, World War II and the Great Depression on the food system, USDA supported gardening and small food production initiatives to increase the supply of fresh food for the domestic population. Now, as COVID-19 has prompted a renewed interest in gardening, USDA's National Agricultural Library is highlighting these initiatives in its digital exhibit, “Small Agriculture.”

“We are in the process of digitizing pretty much all of the print publications that USDA produced across its life span,” Emily Marsh, the designer of the exhibit, told Agri-Pulse. “We have hundreds of thousands of these digitized reports, but they don’t have a lot of meaning in isolation. My idea for the exhibit was to collect these smaller scale initiatives into a container that would give them some context.”

The exhibit highlights three initiatives USDA pursued in support of small-scale farming: the school garden movement in the early 1900s that placed an emphasis on teaching children about the science of plants and “taking responsibility for a specific plot of land”; the subsistence homesteads movement that encouraged people in overcrowded cities to pursue part-time farming and combine the benefits of rural and urban living; and the Victory Garden program that urged citizens to produce food as a “defensive measure” during World War II.

“All of this is very specific information,” said Marsh. “It was designed to be easily understood by pretty much everybody … The department was really trying to help people and, in this case, create food that they could eat in their day-to-day lives.”

The NAL also has published exhibits on George Washington Carver, Robert Frost, the USDA Bureau of Home Economics, Local Foods, and the History of Canning on its website.

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