Today, I thought it would be great to travel back in time and look at healthy eating during WWII. During the 1940s, the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs commissioned Walt Disney Studios to create series of cartoons to provide health education for those in Central and South America. “Health for The Americas: Planning for Good Eating,” published in 1946 was one of several videos created.
The videos were created under the impetus of FDR’s Good Neighbor Policy, aimed at creating stability in Central and South America. This signaled a marked shift in U.S. foreign policy, which previously favored one based on military intervention. During his presidency, Woodrow Wilson sent U.S. troops to Mexico, Haiti, Santo Domingo, Cuba and Nicaragua, often maintaining a presence there. Incidentally, this was not a much different approach from his predecessors.
As the United States became involved in WWII, the state of Central and South American countries became an increasing point of concern. Due to their proximity to the US, the Axis had a vested interest in securing a presence in these countries and U.S. intelligence monitored the potential threat closely. Many German nationals resided in Argentina, Brazil, and Chili throughout WWII and Germany had a history of espionage and subterfuge in that region during WWI (see an image of the original Zimmerman Telegram & a translated copy here). Allied intelligence ultimately detected German espionage perpetrated by The Abwehr, and later the Reich Security Administration. The largest organized attempt to gain a foothold in Central and Southern America, was Operation Bolívar, which involved clandestine communication and intelligence gathering in Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, Cuba, Chile, and Mexico.
The reason that I mention all of this is to help you realize that, as much as these videos were intended as a helpful health resource for the southern neighbors of the US, there was another (and more strategic) motivation. Reducing incidences of disease, improving overall health outcomes, and ensuring a continuous (and an ideally positive) connection with the US were a way to subtly combat potential outside influence from Axis countries. More direct influence included trade and other financial incentives to join the war in support of the Allies (i.e. Lend-Lease Act of 1941). While most of the videos in the series were published prior to the end of WWII, this particular video was released in the following year. However, ongoing security concerns, maintaining established trade patterns and routes, and ensuring global stability, remained high-priority issues in the US dealings with Central and Southern America.
As you can see by viewing the video, health authorities structured overall eating groups into three major areas, animal products, fruits & vegetables, and grains & roots. This was a lot less complex than the US guidelines, A Guide to Good Eating, issued by the USDA which had 7 major food categories. Non-contemporary videos dealing with other cultures are often cringe-worthy, or worse. The US doesn’t exactly have an excellent track record with health issues for non-whites (Google it if you want to ruin the rest of your day…or week). So, it was surprising that they actually attempted some cultural awareness, including the mention of more traditional foods (i.e. plantains, guava, etc.) and agricultural practices, rather than extolling the virtues of white bread and supermarkets.
This post contains multiple in-text links. If you are at all interested in history, I suggest that you take a look. You can view other “Health for the Americas” videos, and an incredible amount of other amazing things from the era on the Internet Archive.