BECOMING SHOPPERS: NC Food Consumption and Production


Between the 1910s and 1960s, there was a cooking revolution in America. At the beginning of the century, many rural families, especially those living in poverty, had very little money to buy food. Because many of North Carolina's farmers grew tobacco rather than edible crops, they had trouble purchasing food bought from out of state. Moreover, only certain foods could be shipped long distances without spoiling, and even when these foods could be bought, they were still a long way from being ready to eat. Thus, many things available in grocery stores today were usually made at home from raw ingredients grown at home or bought at the store: jam, mayonaise, peanut butter, bread. Whether the ingredients came from near or far, once they arrived in the kitchen, there were still hours of labor to be finished before the food was ready to eat. This task usually fell to the women of the house. Without refrigerators or good canning methods, most foods kept for only a few days, and most women had to spend several gruelling hours each day cooking.

Through the Great Depression and World War II, home demonstration agents from NC State helped teach North Carolina women how to preserve foods and prepare meals efficiently at home. They were determined to change the eating habits of rural North Carolinians and teach families to survive without having to rely on national food markets. Commercial and technological developments, such as the electric refrigerator and stove, helped to make food production at home easier, but such advances were usually only affordable to middle-class and elite families.

After the war, food technologies boomed and reached many more homes. At universities like NC State, scientists made chemical, mechanical, and biological breakthroughs that transformed the way food was made and delivered. Now, food could be prepared on a massive scale at corporate farms, farther away from buyers than ever before. The food could be shipped and preserved for increasingly long periods of time, and many North Carolina families started to buy not just some but most of their foods pre-packaged at the grocery store. Still, many rural North Carolina families did not have access to this new food market because they were so isolated and had little money. 

The NC State home demonstration agents, who once focused on teaching families to grow and preserve food at home, now also advised families about how to best shop at the grocery store, how to make a food budget, and how to use modern kitchen appliances like the freezer and the toaster. At the same time that they began focusing on this "consumer education," they also began to focus more attention on the eating and food-purchasing habits of the poor.