During The First World War, the Belgian population was dependent on foreign food aid. The Nationaal Hulp- en Voedingscomité played a crucial role in the distribution of the imported foodstuffs. To this end, the committee opened its own sales points, which the population could visit to buy sugar, corn, tinned meat, rice and other staple products. Because the United States took the lead with aid, and because many products originated there, the sales points were soon named American shops in popular parlance.
Purchases in the American shops could only be made with a ration card. In this way, the attempt was made to divide the available products amongst the population as fairly as possible. Yet still, there were quite a number of people who could not afford to make purchases in the American shops. They were left to the free initiatives for the needy, such as soup kitchens and bread distribution. The Nationaal Hulp- en Voedingscomité coordinated both the shop sales and the aid. The committee was able to finance its free initiatives with the profit from the American shops.