The Lever Act (Lever Food and Fuel Act) was passed by Congress several months after the U.S. entered WW I in 1917.
I. The Lever Act
II. Temperance Support
III. U.S. food Administration
I. The Lever Act
Its official name shows its goal. It was “An Act to Provide Further for the National Security and Defense by Encouraging the Production, Conserving the Supply, and Controlling the Distribution of Food Products and Fuel.” People often call it the Lever Food and Fuel Act. But most simply call it the Lever Act or the Lever Law.
By the time the U.S. entered the war, European food supplies were low. Food production had been disrupted there. The resulting demand had increased prices both in Europe and in the U.S.
But it was impossible to increase production quickly. It takes time to expand crops, poultry, livestock, and other agricultural products. So Congress decided to reduce U.S. consumption through conservation.
This would permit the U.S. to feed its military and that of its allies. Also it could supply humanitarian food relief to populations needing it in Europe.
II. Temperance Support
The temperance movement had become very strong by 1917. A large number of states had already passed state-wide alcohol prohibition by then. And there was a growing call for National Prohibition.
The Lever Act prohibited the use of any food product in the production of distilled alcohol beverages. This was widely supported by temperance activists and supporters, of which there were many millions.
The law prohibited only the production of distilled beverages from foodstuffs. It did not prohibit the brewing of beer from from grains. Nor did it prohibit making wine from grapes or other fruits.
The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) used food conservation as yet another reason to support prohibition. The president of the WCTU argued that producing beer and wine wasted food. Scientists and nutritionists recognized beer and wine as foods. (The same was true for beverage spirits.) But the WCTU insisted that the experts were wrong.
Given the strong temperance sentiment, it’s surprising that Congress didn’t prohibit the production of beer. But organized labor strongly opposed prohibiting beer. And wine production was low and did not use great quantities of grapes.
The focus on distilled beverages may have also reflected a popular myth. It’s true that an ounce of spirits contains more alcohol than an ounce of beer or wine. But standard drinks of beer, wine and spirits contain the same amount of pure alcohol.
The same amount of foodstuffs are used to produce a drink of each. That is, a serving of beer, glass of dinner wine, or shot of whiskey. The latter includes gin, rum, whiskey, etc.
Temperance supporters saw the Lever Act as a step toward National Prohibition. Indeed, they were correct. It went into effect at the beginning of 1920.
III. U.S. Food Administration
Congress created the United States Food Administration to oversee the conservation effort. It was headed by future U.S. President Herbert Hoover.
Hoover favored persuading the population to conserve food. The alternative was food rationing, which is cumbersome and requires a vast bureaucracy. Hoover’s slogan was that “Food Will Win the War.”
Women were central to the effort to reduce both consumption and waste. But there were also general appeals. And even appeals to children.
The Food Administration asked people to sign cards pledging to conserve food.
I, the member of the household entrusted with the handling of food, do hereby enlist as Kitchen Soldier for Home Service and pledge myself to waste no food and to use wisely all food purchased for this household, knowing that by so doing I can help conserve the foods that must be shipped to our soldiers and our Allies.
And children asked to join the Clean Plate Club.To do so they signed pledge cards. They said, in part, this.
At table I’ll not leave a scrap of food upon my plate.
And I’ll not eat between meals, but for supper time I’ll wait.
The Food Administration promoted wheatless Mondays, meatless Tuesdays, and porkless Saturdays.
Books, such as Foods that Will Win the War and How to Cook Them, had recipes for sugarless deserts. They told how to use stale bread, cake, and cereal. Recipes used leftovers in soups. There were menus for wheatless, meatless, and porkless days. They gave practical suggestions for avoiding food waste.
There were also efforts to expand food production. People were asked to create Victory Gardens. Recipes showed a variety of vegetable dinners. By growing some of their own vegetables, families could avoid buying as much food.
The program was a great success. American food consumption fell by 15%. This provided much-needed food for the U.S. military and its allies.
In short, food really did help win the war.
IV. Resources: Lever Act
Hoover, H. America’s Contribution through Food Administration. Wash: Govt. Print. Off., 1918.
Kingsbury, C. For Home and Country: World War I Propaganda on the Home Front. Lincoln: U NE Press, 2010.
Mullendore, W. History of the United States Food Administration, 1917-1919. Stanford: Stanford U Press, 1941.
Vogt, G. When Posters Went to War. How America’s Best Commercial Artists Helped Win World War I. Wis Mag Hist., 2000-2001, 84(2), pp. 38-47.
U.S. Food Admin. The Day’s Food in War and Peace. Wash: U.S.D.A., 1918.