Letters from Jean to Dr. McCollum

Letter to Dr. McCollum

The correspondence between Sally Lucas Jean and Dr. E.V. McCollum is a brief discussion of the effects of salting and pickling vegetables to be served to the incarcerees in the camp. Dr. McCollum was a professor at the John Hopkins School of Public Health who dedicated his life to the research of nutrition and is attributed with the discovery of vitamins A and D (Department of Biochemistry). The letters are dated November 1942, not long after the opening of Poston. Jean writes to Dr. McCollum asking for information on whether or not vitamin C in vegetables is lost when they are pickled with salt or vinegar. Dr. McCollum replies with rather unfortunate news that there is likely a loss of vitamin C, at rates of close to 80 percent. The letters between Jean and Dr. McCollum allude to the severity of the problem of malnutrition within the camp. An average of approximately 30 cents per person per day was spent on each incarcercee for food, and the public continued to demand further budget cuts (PJD 163). This made it almost impossible to provide healthy, well-balanced diets for the incarcerees within the camps.

Although Red Cross reported that the menus in the Incarceration camps “showed no serious shortages in nutritive values” given the limitations of mass feeding, countless incarcerees later testified that the food was lacking in not only quality, but nutrition as well (PJD 163). To provide any sort of fruits or vegetables to the 18,000 people living in Poston often meant serving food that had been pickled or canned. Liver, beef stew, rice, pasta, apple butter and oatmeal were the staples of most camps (Wakamiya interview). Gene Akutsu, a teenager in the camp, recalls the ordeal of having to eat cow tongues and liver on a daily basis. To avoid starvation, he was forced to remind himself, “If it tastes bad, just don’t breathe and just chew it and swallow”.

Incarcerees in the mess hall

Dr. McCollum’s response to Jean regarding the nutritive value of pickled food is extremely worrisome. He explains how vitamin C is quickly lost at high temperatures of 70 degrees, which is well below the extreme heats that were reached in Poston. He says “vegetables lose perhaps half of their C content when cut into smaller pieces and served…in one hour”, and references a study in which green tomatoes soaked in vinegar lost 80 percent of vitamin C in just one night. As Jean said herself, Poston workers had been cutting vegetables into small pieces and soaking them in vinegar, which means they had lost almost all of their vitamins by the time they were consumed. Research today has shown that pickling vegetables will indeed strip them of some nutrients, although perhaps not as much as Dr. McCollum suggested. Fat-soluble vitamins such as A, D, E and K are retained, as well as fiber; however, the heat required for canning pickled vegetables destroys much of the vitamin C (Wolters). Therefore, any canned food served to incarcerees would have lacked in nutrients regardless of if they had been pickled. The “balanced diets” of the incarcerees were likely even more lacking when Poston first opened than anyone would have guessed at the time.

Incarceree cooking

The obvious benefit to pickling vegetables is that they can be kept for longer periods of time due to the high levels of acidity which prevent them from spoiling, thus making them more cost effective. While Jean points to the public health and nutrition service as an indicator that the well-being of the incarcerees was being kept in mind, she goes on to say that their services are extremely limited “and the chefs in each kitchen naturally prepare the type of food the evacuees prefer”. Rather than pointing her finger at the WRA, she tries to place partial blame of the lack of nutrition on the Japanese American chefs. This is absurd given the limitations the chefs faced with their cooking ingredients, which were provided by the WRA. She goes on to question whether or not the weekly minimum requirement of three eggs included eggs used in cooking. This indicates that those running the camp were looking to keep costs low and did not care to provide more than was necessary to meet minimum health standards. Although workers in the Incarceration camps claimed that nutrition was important, cutting costs was always more of a concern.

Incarceree farmers

As time passed in the camp, it became clear to the incarcerees that the government would not be providing them with an adequate diet. However, other options became available as the WRA revealed plans for agriculture programs at the camps. They hoped “to make each relocation community as nearly self-sufficient as possible from an agricultural standpoint” by allowing Japanese farmers to produce crops (WRA 96). Incarcerees grew crops of vegetables and opened hog, dairy, and poultry farms in many areas. Although each camp varied in its ability to produce based on weather conditions where it was located, overall the incarcerated farmers produced approximately 6,800,000 dollars of the 50 million dollars spent on food during the incarceration through the agriculture programs (WRA 97). Poston was not ideally located for farming, being situated in the southwest part of Arizona; however growing fresh food became possible through the use of irrigation systems. Food grown by the incarcerees was served in the mess halls, and excess food was shipped to other camps (Kunitsugu interview). When fresh produce finally became available through the farming programs, many of the nutrition problems were alleviated.

-Sarah Spaltenstein

Akutsu, Gene. Interview by Larry Hashima. “A teenager’s memories of Puyallup Assembly Center”. Densho Visual History. Densho Digital Archive.

Department Of Biochemistry And Molecular Biology. John Hopkins University, 2012. Web. 25 Mar. 2012. <http://www.jhsph.edu/dept/bmb/>.

Kunitsugu, Kats. Interview by Frank Abe. “Food in the incarceration camp”. Frank Abe Collection. Densho Digital Archive.

Letters to E.V. McCollum Nov. 1942, Folder 75 in the Sally Lucas Jean papers #4290, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Wakamiya, Yooichi. Interview by Richard Potashin. Manzanar National Historic Site Collection. Densho Digital Archive.

Wolters, Anne. “Does Pickling Vegetables Take away the Nutrition?” Livestrong. Lance Armstrong Foundation, 5 Sept. 2011. Web. 26 Feb. 2012 <http://www.livestrong.com/article/536144-does-pickling-vegetables-take-away-the-nutrition/>.

WRA: A story of Human Conservation. United States Department of the Interior, Relocation Authority. 1946. Print.