While many historic events have influenced the making of the modern American food system, these five developments greatly impacted the food system of the twentieth century.
Industrialization and Urbanization (19th Century)
In 1790, 95 percent of American families lived in rural areas. Over the course of the nineteenth century, however, many Americans moved to urban areas, seeking new jobs created by the Industrial Revolution. By 1900, 40 percent of Americans lived in cities.
To meet the growing urban demands caused by this population shift, food producers increased output, often using industrialized methods of mass production, which radically transformed the food system. From the start, Dr. Harvey Wiley of the U.S. Bureau of Chemistry was concerned about food safety and quality, especially the effects of newly invented preservatives, which were added to foods to increase production and prevent spoilage, as well as increase profits (Vileisis 2008: 93). Wiley’s work contributed to the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, and a new beginning of American concern about food safety and the government’s role in regulating it.
The Great Depression (1930s)
Donald Worster (1979) argues that the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression occurred simultaneously because they were both products of the same American society, culturally oriented toward rampant expansionism, which destroyed balance, both economically and ecologically. During the 1930s, this imbalance was evident as the strained soil of the southern plains in Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico turned from profitable wheat production to dust.
New Deal agricultural policies attempted to assuage the Dust Bowl with price supports, which continue to influence farm production and the cost of food in America, and around the world.
World War I and II (1914-1918 and 1939-1945)
The World Wars required civilians to temporarily modify eating practices, changes that transformed the American diet and food system. During WW I, the US government encouraged civilians—often through posters—to consume more fresh foods, such as produce, eggs, and dairy products, whose perishable nature made them unsuitable for shipment to the warfront (Freidberg 2009: L. 513).
This wartime promotion played a role in changing how Americans ate long-term and created consumer need and desire for kitchen equipment that maintained the freshness of perishable foods (Freidberg 2009: L. 556). As a result, home refrigerator sales increased considerably between the wars, from 8 percent in the 1920s to 44 percent by 1940 (Nickles 2002: 696).
During WW II, the military food machine developed new foods for soldiers, such as Spam, dehydrated potatoes, and powdered orange juice. At the war’s end with no more troops to feed, the food industry sought new markets, taking aim at the American housewife.
Though unsuccessful at first, the food industry eventually gained a foothold by not selling convenience food products, but marketing a new cuisine—“packaged food cuisine”—and an aspirational lifestyle to go along with it (Shapiro 2004: 56). But women never fully forfeited their kitchens or relationship with food, even when adopting a feminist point of view (Avakian 1997). Learn more about this in big ideas.
The Counterculture (1960s and 1970s)
Motivated by a perfect storm of political, social, and environmental strife in the late 1960s, the counterculture took on the food industry, bringing the movement’s broader political and ecological agenda to the dinner table.
The hippie foods of the countercuisine—characterized by “the oppositional language of…natural vs. plastic, white vs. brown, process vs. processed, fast vs. slow, light vs. heavy” (Belasco  2007: 104)—eventually went mainstream. In this process, certain elements of the countercuisine survived in tact, others were modified and combined, while still others disappeared entirely. Today’s health foods—from granola to tofu—as well as organic agriculture, the greater availability of ethnic cuisine, and more widespread concern for ecology, green living, and global warming all have roots in the counterculture.
While Americans have long eaten with good health in mind, 1980 marks a turning point as food, nutrients, and health became fused in the American consciousness when the US Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services published the first Dietary Guidelines for Americans. These seven guideline statements contributed to growing public awareness of the connections between consuming foods high in fat, sodium, and cholesterol and disease, from strokes to diabetes (Vileisis 2008: 224).
Furthermore, by promoting specific nutrients rather than whole foods, the food industry was primed to develop new products, pacifying health worries with processed foods marketed as healthy, such as Lean Cuisine and Diet Pepsi (Belasco 1989: 201). While industrialization and urban living began a chain of events distancing eaters from food knowledge, the reduction of food to nutrients and numbers also dramatically altered American food perceptions, creating a food system even more complicated for health conscious consumers to navigate.