A System for Abundance
The postwar United States largely enjoyed an abundant and widely affordable food supply. New technologies and applications of science—many of which originated during World War II to support military efforts—helped make this possible. Agricultural researchers developed new ways to control pests and weeds, fertilize crops, manipulate genetic material, and stimulate growth of livestock. Food companies centralized and automated production in modern factories, transforming the raw materials of agriculture into higher volumes of canned, frozen, and processed foods in less time and with fewer workers.
A Seasonless Vegetable
By 1950, iceberg lettuce was consumed more than any other vegetable in the United States. Much of the nation’s supply grew year-round on large, centralized farms in California’s Salinas Valley. Iceberg had been shipped cross-country in ice-packed rail cars since the 1920s. But in the early 1950s, a new vacuum technology, repurposed from World War II, cooled lettuce more effectively than ice, resulting in less spoilage. Once packed in wooden crates that could withstand melting ice, lettuce could now be field-packed in lighter, cardboard boxes, eliminating the need for a separate warehouse and packing staff.
Field to Fridge
Large-scale, centralized production detached most consumers from the growing, shipping, and packaging of their food. As distances expanded between where food was grown and where people lived, most Americans were freed from the labor-intensive steps of food production—and less aware of their importance.
Magazine advertisements from the 1950s and 1960s revealed a few of the steps that brought lettuce to supermarkets across the country, and a few of the interests invested in large-scale lettuce production.
The shift to large-scale field and food production involved changes in labor and technology. Labor shortages during World War II led to the Bracero Program, which, between 1942 and 1964, brought more than two million Mexican men to the United States to work on short-term contracts. Labor unions such as the United Farm Workers sought to organize farm workers and fight for better wages and working conditions. They also staged boycotts to bring attention to these issues. Many growers turned to technological innovations to save costs, cut dependence on labor, and increase efficiency.
[C]on una mano, tenía que ir azadonazo y con la otra tenía que ir quitando el, las matitas, a dejar una sola—una sola matita—una sola matita.
You hoed the plant with one hand and with the other hand you removed the stems to leave just one—one little stem—one little stem.
—José Natividad Alva Medina