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Food Preservation Is In The Can

Food preservation through canning has been a longtime practice in the United States. Americans ate canned food while embarking on long journeys, such as the westward expansion movement. Canning also helped America in times of need, specifically during wartime when food was in short supply. USDA's Bureau of Home Economics encouraged and instructed homemakers to preserve food through canning to ensure families and troops were fed. Viewing the USDA National Agricultural Library’s (NAL) exhibit “How Did We Can” gives us an appreciation of how canning evolved from a way to feed French troops in Napoleon’s army, to how today’s food preservation empowers us to reduce waste and capture food at its peak ripeness.

Food preservation is an ancient practice. In the Historical Origins of Food Preservation, Brian Nummer stated, “Food by its nature begins to spoil the moment it is harvested. Food preservation enabled ancient man to make roots, live in one place and form a community. He no longer had to consume the kill or harvest immediately, but could preserve some for later use. Each culture preserved their local food sources using the same basic methods of food preservation.” Canning includes curing, pickling, freezing, fermenting, and drying.

According to NAL’s digital exhibit “How Did We Can?” canning wasn’t always easy or safe. The exhibit contains over 100 full-text digital documents, articles, and images documenting the progression of canning practices in the United States during the 20th century, including the consequences of improper canning techniques. For example, despite the fact that the first American cannery opened in 1812, a full understanding of spoilage bacteria wasn’t known until nearly a half century later. Names like Mason and Ball became part of American vernacular when they perfected the manufacture of glass jars to replace the tin cans that rusted and reacted with the acidic contents during the early years of canning.

In 1914, the Smith-Lever Act established a cooperative extension service at the land grant universities to inform people about current developments in agriculture and home economics, including how to select, prepare, and preserve food to improve public health. With the advent of refrigeration in the 1940s, home canning became an unnecessary burden. However, a resurgence in home canning occurred in the late 1980s, and with it a concern about dangerous practices, which prompted USDA to publish its first edition of USDA Agriculture Information Bulletin 539 Complete Guide to Home Canning.

An updated version of the Complete Guide to Home Canning was published in 2015 and provides clear instructions to help avoid contamination and other food safety issues. Both novice and beginner canners can also contact their local Extension representative for resources and advice. Both resources will empower you to capture your favorite foods at their peak of freshness and nutrient content. In fact, the updated guide even has instructions for canning your own baby food. Just think of how proud you’ll be when you announce at your next meal that not only was the meal your creation, but the vegetables were canned at home by the chef! —by Marcia Greenblum, RDN, National Agricultural Library

Want to savor the flavor of summer all year long?

The National Center for Home Food Preservation was established with funding from USDA Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service to address food safety concerns for those who practice and teach home food preservation and processing methods. The website offers a wealth of tips for beginners for preserving their favorite foods, through t canning, freezing, curing and smoking, and fermenting and pickling.

Check out the lesson plan for teaching children and make food preservation a family activity. Also, visit the National Agricultural Library’s (NAL) digital exhibit on canning (How Did We Can?) to see the successes and mistakes made by early canners. Lastly, you won’t want to miss NAL’s Historical Dietary Guidance Digital Collection to get a glimpse of U.S. government food preservation guidance from 1912 through 1975.

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