Families, Food, and Dining

Relocation of Japanese Americans
War Relocation Authority
Washington, D.C.

May 1943

"Food is furnished by the Government for all evacuee residents. The meals are planned at an average cost of not more than 45 cents per person per day (the actual cost, as this is written, has averaged almost 48 cents), are prepared by evacuee cooks, and are served generally cafeteria style in mess halls that accommodate between 250 and 300 persons. At all centers, Government-owned or Government-leased farmlands are being operated by evacuee agricultural crews to produce a considerable share of the vegetables needed in the mess halls. At nearly all centers, the farm program also includes the production of poultry, eggs, and pork; and at a few the evacuees are raising beef and dairy products.

Every evacuee is subject to the same food rationing restrictions as all other residents of the United States."

One of the Mess Halls set for the next meal.
One of the over 38 mess halls set up for the next meal.

Johnson & Son

Minidoka Relocation Center consisted of 36 blocks each containing 12 barracks and one recreation center arranged around a mess hall and a lavatory-laundry building. The meal system was institutional with meals being served in mess halls at designated times complete with long lines and crowded tables.

The sheer size of the task of feeding 9,400+ residents was daunting. The choice of food on the menu was a source of nearly constant complaints. The American born Nisei were accustomed to a more standard American diet while most Issei preferred native Japanese dishes. The quality of the food served was poor, with milk and fresh meat constantly in short supply. Contrary to persistent rumors, incarcerees were subjected to the same food rationing restrictions as all other Americans. Inexpensive foods such as wieners, dried fish, pancakes, macaroni and pickled vegetables were served often. Vegetables, which had been an important part of the Japanese Americans' diet on the West Coast, were replaced in camp with starches. The incarcerees' diets improved only after they began growing some of their own fresh produce.

The quality of the food also varied as some mess halls were run by experienced cooks; others were not and their fare was not so good. Posted signs reminded people that food quantities were limited. Often hungry teenagers ate meals at more than one mess hall in order to be sure they got enough to eat. Other signs explained that milk was limited to children and the ill. The best that can be said of the meal system was that no one starved.

The Issei had developed large, close-knit families with the fathers being regarded as having great authority. Issei families placed strong emphasis on involvement in family relationships and for children to be disciplined and trained in such a way that they will most likely bring honor to the family by their being successful. But the Issei's authority was greatly weakened as the previously tight knit family structure was eroded by this type of group living with children and teenagers escaping parental authority by eating with friends rather than family.

Mess halls were used in other ways as well. They were regularly used for gatherings such as banquets, meetings, dances, and special programs. Block residents would decorate their hall for the different holidays while competing with others for the bragging rights of best decorated hall.

After Minidoka War Relocation Center closed in October 1945 there was a surplus of barracks. The government gave many buildings to communities in the area and others were sold to farmers and nearby families. A mess hall building was used to create the Jerome Canning Kitchen in 1947. Over the years many people used the canning kitchen to prepare food for their families. When canning equipment became more affordable to buy for home use, and commercially processed food was more available in the 1970's and 80's the canning kitchen was closed. This historical building was offered to Minidoka NHS. In August 2011 the mess hall was moved in three sections from the Jerome fairgrounds, at night, to Block 22 where it was reassembled, stabilized, and cleaned. It is open for public viewing during ranger led tours and special events.


Last updated: August 29, 2019

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