The students were talking about tomatoes, cucumbers and eggplant, but they weren’t filling plates in a dining hall — they were in a special topics class, exploring Victory Gardens and the role of food during World War II.
Victory Gardens — planted outside private homes and in public parks — sprouted across America during World Wars I and II, providing locally grown produce during a time when food was rationed.
“World War II had a big impact on food policy, nutrition and the American diet long after the war,” said Emilie Raymond, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of History in the College of Humanities and Sciences.
Raymond’s six-week summer studies class, “Food will Win the War: Food Policy during World War II,” examined that impact by looking at food policies, rationing, cooking, and the use of the popular press and propaganda to shift Americans’ diets during the war.
Students in the class spent one session a week at Office of Sustainability’s Monroe Park Campus Learning Garden, where they created their own Victory Garden of cucumbers, tomatoes, eggplant, oregano, parsley and swiss chard. Working on an abbreviated schedule, Raymond and Sara Barton, learning garden coordinator, started seeds of the quick-growing summer crops for an example bed.
“I was pleasantly surprised. All the crops cooperated, the weather cooperated and the class was able to harvest,” Barton said. “All the plants came in beautifully. Planning ahead really allowed for us to see a larger segment of the plant life cycle in that six weeks.”
Students came to the class with a range of knowledge about gardening, World War II and the intersection of those topics.
“A couple of them really had a lot of experience with plants but not necessarily with vegetable gardening. A few had good memories of gardening as children, or with their grandparents, but hadn’t done much on their own,” said Raymond. “This was a great way for them to kind of reconnect with those memories and those skills that had dropped off.”
Mitch Rogers, a junior history major, embraced the mix of class and outdoor time.
“I love it. I think it provides a lot of energy to the class, which made me excited about my studies,” he said. “It definitely connected a lot of the students with what’s going on, as far as topics in the class, just by getting hands in the dirt.”
Lessons at the garden included a seed swap, in which students tested different types of plant seeds. The students also explored topics like when to start seedlings or direct seed, how to maximize planting space and sun exposure, and mulching and compost. Students took turns weeding, watering and performing other tasks, and even volunteered outside class time at the garden.
“This is a much more realistic interpretation of what a Victory Garden would have been like for someone,” said Chloe Rote, a senior urban planning student. “We had to come up with a watering schedule, we all had to share the effort. The learning hit home a little harder because we weren’t just reading and sitting inside.”
In the classroom, students reviewed primary sources, including newspapers and popular magazines like “Life” from VCU Libraries. They also read the book “The Taste of War: World War Two and the Battle for Food” by Lizzie Collingsworth.
“It was a nice global look at food policy, and to what degree food was a motivating factor in the Japanese and German empires,” said Raymond, who added that the two Axis powers looked to conquered lands for natural resources and agricultural production to feed their population and industrialize their homelands.
The students completed research projects on topics such as the role of propaganda, rationing and other wartime American policies. They also practiced recipes from “Cooking in Wartime,” a 1943 cookbook aimed at helping households stretch food on the home front.
“[American women] had less time to cook, and meal planning was a lot harder due to rationing,” said Raymond. “Everyone cooked a dish in the class, and that was a good learning experience — and we got to eat the food. Several used produce from [our] Victory Garden.”
Although a few generations removed from World War II, many students shared stories from relatives. Many remembered a gardening grandmother, or a grandfather talking about eating from a Victory Garden.
Students also took inspiration from the class to their own backyards and patios.
“I turned a nice wooden door into a green wall, and things are starting to bloom in that. That was an inspiration from class,” Rogers said.
Most space in the garden is dedicated to growing food for donation to RamPantry, the student food pantry, and the nonprofit Center for Healthy Hearts. Education is another important mission.
“Food production and donation is a critical part of our mission, but so is providing engaging and enriching learning opportunities,” said Barton. “To have a small group of students who are coming each week, and knowing that I can build in information we talked about previously, makes for a much deeper learning experience.”
Barton hopes to engage more classes in the future.
“It could be in a discipline I haven’t even thought of,” she said. “Engaging with academia is a great way to bring related issues, especially social justice issues, into the fold.”
Raymond said the garden can play a variety of roles for fellow professors.
“If the garden can play an important component that supports their academic goal, they should definitely go for it. We had a tremendous experience there,” she said.
Students left a colorful mark on the garden during their final week, painting their example garden bed a patriotic red and blue with white stars. They also created an informational pamphlet based on their research projects.
“Students in summer courses are typically very motivated students, and that was the case this time around. Summer can be fun,” Raymond said.