If you are a millennial foodie like me, chances are that you have followed five or more food accounts on Instagram, Facebook, or YouTube, have at least two apps on your phone that help you find the best restaurants wherever you go, or have food shows like Chef’s Table and Ugly Delicious recommended to you by Netflix based on your watch history. Nowadays, we are constantly bombarded with imageries of food of different kinds wherever we go, whether we are walking down the streets, shopping in malls, or scrolling on the internet at home. Regardless of being a cook or not, food is a very integral part of our lives, and it is this pervasiveness of food in our daily lives that makes the representation of food in media an implicit yet favourable tool of propaganda. With the abundance of movies, documentary films, TV shows, photography, and advertisements related to food that are present in today’s society, it is hard to imagine and evaluate the political significances of any one particular representation of food. However, if we go back in time to the periods of World War I and II, we can find a lot of straightforward examples of how food is being used as a tool of propaganda in media.
In this post, I will bring us back to a key moment in the history of food media by examining the short film Food Will Win the War, an animation made by the Disney Studios for the United States Department of Agriculture in 1942, which is during the World War II. By using food as a symbolic field to assert national power and identity, and to boost a sense of patriotism, the short animation film is an epitome of how food media could reflect and shape American ideologies in terms of food production and consumption.
Food as Weapon
Although the short film is produced to reassure Americans that US was growing food for both domestic use as well as supplies to the Allies, and to praise the hard work and sacrifice of farmers, it is not hard to find the political messages embedded in the film. First of all, the militarisation of food is an obvious theme throughout the film. It transforms the image of food as not just energy fuel for daily activities, but also weapons that could help America and the Allies win the war against the Axis, as suggested by the title of the film. The film is quick to evoke a sense of patriotism at the very beginning, where the narrator says that the “American agriculture” is the light of hope in the darkest hour of the World War. This is followed by visuals showing the amount of farmland in US is greater than all of Europe combined, and that the number of farmers in the country is twice as many as that of the soldiers in Axis (Figure 1.1 and 1.2). The constant juxtaposition of military machines like tanks and battleships with farming equipment such a planting machines, milking columns and potato diggers further emphasises the idea of food as weapons and suggest that the farmers are just as important as the soldiers fighting in the war.
The sense of American imperialism is also apparent through a series of hyperbolic images that shows the statistics of what US farmers produce in a year using visual images of famous landmarks around the world. For example, to help audience visualise the fifty-two billion and eight hundred million pounds of wheat that US famers could produce in a year, the film shows that “if all this wheat was made into flour, they’d be enough to snow under the entire German Panzer Army”, which is a comparison that puts the Axis power at a weaker position. The film also tells the audience that US farmers produce two billion, eight hundred and fifty million bushels of corn a year, but this number is very abstract until we see hear that if all that corn is “grown into one huge ear, it would make a bridge from London to the Black Sea”, accompanied by an image of a giant corn descending across the whole Europe. This is another example of how the film uses exaggerated visuals to assert America’s dominance over other countries. Even though different types of food are mentioned in the short film, but they are not praised for their effects on human body and health, but are reduced merely as a tool for America to advance their power during the war.
Quantity over quality
The images of grotesque and exaggerated amplification of food sizes compared to famous world landmarks also show how excessiveness is hailed as indicator of success rather than its quality. The emphasis on quantity over equality both reflects and shapes a culture where the ideas of abundance and excess are seen as solutions to the problem of hunger and signs of national security amidst the devastation of the World War. For example, the films illustrate how the yield of vegetables in US is sufficient enough to cover the Great Wall of China, and excessive loaves of bread baked from American flour could form a series of pyramids the length of Suez Canal. In many ways, the film promotes a sense of security and success through material abundance, which is an ideology that underlies many agricultural developments in US in the next few decades.
Power of machinery over nature
Another recurrent theme in the film is the use of machines for food production. The narrator attributes the success in agriculture to farmers who are ready for sacrifices, but this would not be possible without the “farm machinery, battalions of combines, regiments of truck, divisions of corn pickers, potato diggers, planting machines, columns of milking machines”. Visually we see numbers of machines harvesting and producing vast quantity of food effectively.
After World War II ended in 1945, the urgency to supply huge amount of food for soldiers in the war front was no longer needed, but the idea of agricultural productivity and abundance as an indicator of success remained. A few years after the war came the beginning of the Green Revolution, which was a period of time when food production in places like US, Mexico, and South America were greatly increased due to deployment of technological advancements, including the development of high-yield varieties of grains, mechanisation of production, and the use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers.
The analysis of Food Will Win the War gives us a glimpse of a key moment in food history that reflected a changing culture in food production and consumption in US. Nonetheless, the ideologies promoted in the film are not just products of World War II, but are continuation of historical ideals. The phrase “food will win the war” was in fact the slogan of an agriculture campaign led by Herbert Hoover, the head of United States Food Administration during World War I. Even after the World Wars ended, the spirit of “food will win the war” seemed to have continued, manifested in the ‘war’ of increasing food production around the world through industrialisation and technological advancements, forever changing the way we eat.
Disney Studios. Food Will Win the War (1942). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KAh_H1LFZbs.
Bossert, D. “Food Will Win the War: The Disney Way” Cartoon Research, 2018. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/foods-that-make-up-most-of-the-calories-american-consume-2015-2
Grey, Houston S. “‘A banquet for all the world’: democracy and consumerism in Disney’s Food Will Win the War” Critical Studies in Media Communication 35.4 (2018): 363-375.
Tunc, Emin T. “Less Sugar, More Warships: Food as American Propaganda in the First World War” War in History 19.2 (2012): 193-216.