Nutrition on the Home Front in World War II

Black and white photo showing the back of a woman, leaning tiredly against an open door. She is watching children playing across the street.
“There’s Danger when people tire too easily; when minds are slow to think; when bodies can’t fight disease.” Poster, Make America Strong series, Government Printing Office, 1941.

Collection of the National Archives and Records Administration (NAID: 514947).


The science of nutrition that we take for granted today was in its infancy when World War II began. Before the 1930s, scientists knew that protein, energy, and minerals made up a nutritious diet. They also knew that some other things contributed, but they did not know what they were.

During the Great Depression, many across the United States suffered from hunger and malnutrition. A main concern was a widespread lack of B vitamins, resulting in a tired, nervous, and depressed population.

Scientists began investigating the specifics of what minerals and vitamins people needed to stay healthy. And they began recommending “protective foods” to prevent malnutrition. These included milk, leafy vegetables, eggs, fish, and organ meats.[1]

As World War II became increasingly inevitable, the US government was very worried about nutrition -- in the military and among civilians. Their concern was warranted – up to a quarter of draftees called up via the Selective Service Act of 1940 were malnourished and unfit to serve.[2]

World War II & Nutrition

Black and white photo of a man in a suit about to eat a large forkful of food. Black and white photo of a man in a suit about to eat a large forkful of food.

Left image
“Are You On A Suicide Diet? You can stuff yourself with food… and still be committing dietary suicide! Surveys show that millions of Americans are not getting all the vitamins they need.” Detail of an ad for canned Florida citrus products, 1942.
Credit: Life Magazine, July 6, 1942, p. 74.

Right image
“Enriched Bread is Building A Healthier America.” To be enriched, bread & white flour had thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, and iron added. By the end of 1942, nearly 3/4 of US white bread was enriched.
Credit: Parran, Thomas (1944) “Introduction.” In NY State Food – In War and in Peace, Albany. pp. 157-158.

Stylized illustration showing the silhouette of a family (man, woman, and boy) holding hands contained within a silhouette outline of Uncle Sam raising a forkful of food to his mouth.
“U.S. Needs US Strong. Eat Nutritional Food. Do Your Part in the National Nutrition Program.” Poster, Office of Defense Health and Welfare Service, ca. 1941-1945.

Collection of the National Archives and Records Administration (NAID: 515914).

The Food and Nutrition Board

Nutrition and food became linked with the future of America and of democracy itself.[3] In 1940, the National Research Council founded the Food and Nutrition Board (FNB) “to advise on nutrition problems in connection with National Defense.”[4] Their goal was to prepare a standard list of recommended nutrients that would make up a healthy diet.[5]

That same year, commercial bakeries volunteered to fortify bread. They replaced the B vitamins that disappeared when millers refined wheat into white flour. They also added other vitamins and minerals. In January of 1943, the government mandated enrichment of all white bread.[6]

In May 1941, 900 delegates of the National Nutrition Conference for Defense gathered at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC. Doctors, home economists, dieticians, farmers, union leaders, and food industry professionals were there to discuss how to improve the nation's health.[7]

At the conference, the FNB presented a working draft of recommendations compiled from existing studies. And shortly afterwards, the federal government launched the National Nutrition Campaign. The slogan was the less-than-catchy “Eat Nutritional Food."

The “Basic 7”

In 1943, after two years of refinements, the FNB published the nation's first recommended daily dietary allowances. Included were recommendations for daily intake of calories, protein, calcium, iron, Vitamin A, Thiamine (B1), Riboflavin, Niacin, Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C), and Vitamin D. They also suggested needed amounts of Vitamin K, iodine, and copper.[9]

Understanding that these numbers were not helpful on their own, the FNB provided an 8-part sample diet.[10] The sample diet was quickly simplified to the “Basic 7,” a precursor to our current food pyramid.[11]

Illustrated poster showing benefits like “fight that tired feeling,” “builds muscle,” “good eyesight pays,” “protect yourself from illness,” and “for strong bones and teeth.”
“Eat the Basic 7 Every Day! Eat A Lunch That Packs A Punch!” Poster, War Food Administration, 1943. The image shows what to eat, organized in 7 categories. The cartoon figures illustrate the benefits of a healthy diet.

Collection of the National Archives and Records Administration (NAID: 514199).

The Basic 7 were:

  • Group One: Green and Yellow Vegetables: some raw, some cooked, frozen or canned;

  • Group Two: Oranges, Tomatoes, Grapefruit: or raw cabbage or salad greens;

  • Group Three: Potatoes and Other Vegetables and Fruit: raw, dried, cooked, frozen, or canned;

  • Group Four: Milk and Milk Products: fluid, evaporated, dried milk, or cheese;

  • Group Five: Meat, Poultry, Fish, or Eggs: or dried beans, peas, nuts, or peanut butter;

  • Group Six: Bread, Flour, and Cereals: natural whole-grain, or enriched, or restored;

  • Group Seven: Butter and Fortified Margarine (with added Vitamin A).

Black and white photo of a kitchen with enamel stove, white cupboards, a refrigerator, and a stool.
A 1940s kitchen boasting a Servel refrigerator.

Collection of the University of Southern Indiana University Archives & Special Collections, Brad Awe Collection (MSS 184-0105).


In 1942, the Servel Company of Evansville, Indiana published the “Vita-Min-Go” game. Like other companies who dedicated their production capacity to the war effort, Servel didn't want the public to forget them. (Instead of their usual refrigerators, during World War II, they made wings for warplanes.) The Vita-Min-Go game was one way to stay relevant and support the war.

The game has a scoresheet listing several different kinds of foods. Every food has a point value for six vitamins and minerals, each represented by a different color. As players ate during the day, they tracked the points value for nutrients on a card of the same color. “Winning” the game each day meant getting at least 20 points on each of the six cards. “The prize for winning is better health and more vigor. The penalty for losing is greater chance of sickness.”

You can download and play the game yourself, thanks to the Oregon State Archives!

An illustration of a carrot with hands, face, and feet waving a conductor’s baton. There is sheet music on the music stand in front of the carrot.
Cover of the “Nutrition Notes” collection of songs promoting healthy eating. Published by students at Sarah Lawrence College, 1943.

Oregon State Archives, Defense Council Records, Folder 14, Box 30.

Illustration of a boy and girl playing baseball. A school house is in the background. In the foreground is a black & white photograph of a boy eating at a table. He has a plate of food, a glass of milk, and fruit. He wears overalls and a striped shirt.
“Every Child Needs A Good School Lunch. The War Food Administration Will Help your Community Start a School Lunch Program.” Poster, War Food Administration, 1944.

Collection of the National Archives and Records Administration (NAID: 514223).

School Lunches

Good nutrition was so important that there was a promotional program by the government, civic groups, and others. In 1942, the president created the Food Distribution Administration. It controlled the procurement, storage, and distribution of food to the military, allies, and civilians. Staff worked with the Office of Price Administration to set rationing guidelines and managed the school lunch program.[13]

Government-provided school lunches were first established during the Great Depression. They were among the New Deal programs managed by the Works Progress Administration. The program used surplus agricultural products to feed the overwhelming number of hungry children. It also was a vehicle for reducing unemployment, as schools hired lunchroom staff.[14] In 1942, the government estimated that over five million children (about one quarter of the nation’s total) received school lunches in over 78,850 schools.[15] By the end of the war, free and subsidized meals were being provided to over eight million children in an estimated 60,000 schools. Another million children took park in the “penny milk” program, providing a half pint of milk for one cent.[16]

In many cases, parents don’t have enough money to put the right kinds of food in their children’s lunch pails. In some cases – and this is increasingly true as more women go into war work – parents just don’t have the time to put up the right kind of lunch for their children. In other cases, parents aren’t well enough informed about nutrition to prepare an adequate lunch for their children.[17]
--United States War Food Administration and Office of Distribution, 1943

The school lunch program did more than feed children’s bodies. It also increased attendance, improved learning outcomes, and led to healthier children. This last was important due to a shortage of doctors in the US as they joined the military.

White text on a red background.
“Doctors are Scarce. One out of three has gone to war.” Poster, Office of War Information, 1943 (detail).

Collection of the National Library of Medicine (NLM ID: 101450630).

Challenges and Shortcomings

The nutrition programs of World War II were not without their problems. Despite an all-out educational campaign, less than half the population was eating to the Basic 7. Only 7% reported getting their full daily allowances.[19] The risk to the war effort was bigger than just those who were not eating well. Undernourished people are more likely to get sick than those who are well-fed. Because of wartime pressures (and policies), employers and the government strongly discouraged taking time off. People who were sick, therefore, brought their illnesses to work, where they spread to their coworkers. The result was losses in war production.[20]

Part of the problem in meeting the Basic 7 was the cost. Americans in general were making good wages doing wartime work, but the increase in income wasn’t uniform. One estimate pegged the National Nutrition Program as too expensive for 20-50% of Americans.[21]

Graphic illustration of a terrified woman holding a young child against a red background. A black swastika covers them and fills the background.
“Save Them This Fate. Don’t stay home from work! Back Up Our Battleskies!” Poster, War Production Board, ca. 1942-1943.

Collection of the National Archives and Records Administration (NAID: 534711).

There were other issues as well. The Basic 7 did not include regional foods or cultural preferences in its recommendations. Those who developed it built it around European and New England diets of white bread, butter, potatoes, cow’s milk, and refined white sugar.[22] This was not by accident; after the Civil War, food – specifically food familiar to New Englanders – was marketed as “American.” The idea was to bring the country together around a common identity -- one that was purposefully white and middle class. By excluding African American, Asian American, Latino American, and Native American foodways, these groups were marked as "other." Those who did follow the recommendations, and moved away from their traditional foods and ways of eating, were perceived to be more American.[23]

The issue was not just cultural, but also biological. The nutritionists of World War II emphasized milk as a “perfect food.” But there are many people whose ancestors did not raise dairy cows, and so they tend to be lactose intolerant. This includes many people of African and Asian descent, as well as Native Americans, Alaska Natives, Pacific Islanders, and Native Hawaiians.[24] The New England-based foods that made up the Basic 7 recommendations also ignored that different foods grow in different areas. This steered people away from local, seasonal foods and towards imported and preserved foods.

Despite the pressure to conform, there were those who pushed back. Filipina food chemist Maria Orosa was one of them. After training in food science in the United States she returned to the Philippines. There, she developed recipes using local foods and trained others how to grow and cook them. Her goal was to free Filipinos from their reliance on preserved and imported foods.

A glass of water sits on a set table. Beside it are silver salt and pepper shakers.
Detail from “Ours… to fight for: Freedom From Want.” Poster, Office of War Information, 1943. One  of Norman Rockwell’s paintings illustrating President Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms.

Collection of University of North Texas Libraries, Government Documents (ark:/67531/metadc555).

Did You Know?

In 1945, the FNB published a revised set of suggested daily requirements that included suggestions for how much water a person needs each day.[25] This is the source of the idea that we should drink 8 glasses of water a day. In the report, the FNB gave equations for how much water a person needed based on how much energy they used. For someone using 2,000 calories a day, the suggestion for water intake was 64oz. This was widely interpreted as eight x 8oz glasses of water.[26]

But that’s not what the study said. In fact, the study said that “A suitable allowance of water for adults is 2.5 liters [about 85oz] daily in most instances.…Most of this quantity is contained in prepared foods.” In other words, the foods we eat contain most of the water we need each day. When we need more water – when working hard or on hot days – we can, according to the study, generally rely on our sense of thirst.[27]

This article was written by Megan E. Springate, Assistant Research Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Maryland, for the NPS Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation and Education. It was funded by the National Council on Public History.

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Last updated: February 8, 2024