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Breadlines Knee-Deep in Wheat

Breadlines Knee-Deep in Wheat: Food Assistance in the Great Depression

Janet Poppendieck
Foreword by Marion Nestle
Copyright Date: 2014
Edition: 1
Pages: 418
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  • Book Info
    Breadlines Knee-Deep in Wheat
    Book Description:

    At no time during the Great Depression was the contradiction between agriculture surplus and widespread hunger more wrenchingly graphic than in the government's attempt to raise pork prices through the mass slaughter of miliions of "unripe" little pigs. This contradiction was widely perceived as a "paradox." In fact, as Janet Poppendieck makes clear in this newly expanded and updated volume, it was a normal, predictable working of an economic system rendered extreme by the Depression. The notion of paradox, however, captured the imagination of the public and policy makers, and it was to this definition of the problem that surplus commodities distribution programs in the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations were addressed.This book explains in readable narrative how the New Deal food assistance effort, originally conceived as a relief measure for poor people, became a program designed to raise the incomes of commercial farmers. In a broader sense, the book explains how the New Deal years were formative for food assistance in subsequent administrations; it also examines the performance--or lack of performance--of subsequent in-kind relief programs.Beginning with a brief survey of the history of the American farmer before the depression and the impact of the Depression on farmers, the author describes the development of Hoover assistance programs and the events at the end of that administration that shaped the "historical moment" seized by the early New Deal. Poppendieck goes on to analyze the food assistance policies and programs of the Roosevelt years, the particular series of events that culminated in the decision to purchase surplus agriculture products and distribute them to the poor, the institutionalization of this approach, the resutls achieved, and the interest groups formed. The book also looks at the takeover of food assistance by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its gradual adaptation for use as a tool in the maintenance of farm income. Utliizing a wide variety of official and unofficial sources, the author reveals with unusual clarity the evolution from a policy directly responsive to the poor to a policy serving mainly democratic needs.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95842-5
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Marion Nestle

    What a gift to have this new edition ofBreadlines Knee-Deep in Wheat, too long out of print and badly missed. Janet Poppendieck and I exchanged books when we first met, in the late 1980s, and I still treasure the signed copy she gave me, even with its water stains from hurricane damage to my New York University office some years ago. Brought up to date with its enlightening new epilogue, her book could not have arrived at a more timely moment. As I write these words, the government is still recovering from the effects of a sixteen-day shutdown caused...

    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. INTRODUCTION: The Paradox of Want amid Plenty
    (pp. xv-xxii)

    “For the American farmer, 1932 was a year of singular misfortune,” reported theNew York Timeson New Year’s Day, 1933. Between January and mid December, average farm prices had fallen by more than 18 percent, following a drop of nearly 50 percent in the two previous years. Two days later, a more detailed report on farm prices predicted a continuation of the rock bottom levels: “The huge surpluses of leading agricultural products that have been accumulated during the last few years are expected generally to preclude more than a moderate recovery in prices in 1933, even if there should...

  6. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xxiii-xxiv)
  7. CHAPTER ONE The Plight of the Farmer
    (pp. 1-15)

    The huge surpluses of food and fiber that caused so much consternation among those aware of the hunger of the unemployed did not begin with the Depression. In fact, surpluses had plagued farmers sporadically for half a century and had crippled the agricultural sector for most of the decade before the Crash. The surpluses were both symptom and symbol of the deeply-rooted process of change in American agriculture. In the early decades of the American republic, when the vast majority of Americans were farmers and most farm products were consumed at home, the idea that an abundant harvest could be...

  8. CHAPTER TWO Depression: Deprivation and Despair
    (pp. 16-34)

    The stock market crash in the autumn of 1929 did not immediately cause grave apprehension among farm leaders. Some segments of the agricultural press, in fact, believed that the collapse of paper values might help to restore balance between the farm and nonfarm sectors. “The farmers of America are milking their cows and slopping their pigs as usual, while mother gets the breakfast and dresses the children for school,” commented thePrairie Farmerin November. “Farm conditions are steadily improving, and the deflation of stock speculation will help to give farmers more adequate and cheaper credit, and to teach the...

  9. CHAPTER THREE The Politics of Wheat and Drought
    (pp. 35-54)

    In keeping with the American tradition of local responsibility for relief, initial responses to the troubling juxtaposition of hunger and surplus were local and direct. New York and Illinois dairy farmers distributed surplus milk to needy families on a regular basis. In the Far West and the Rocky Mountain states, farmers permitted the unemployed to pick surplus fruits and vegetables under the direction of self-help organizations, often bartering their surplus crops for services that they needed but could not afford. Fruit growers in California donated surplus citrus products to local chapters of the Unemployed Citizens League for distribution, and all...

  10. CHAPTER FOUR Government Grain for the Needy
    (pp. 55-72)

    When Congress adjourned on March 4, 1931, the wheat distribution plan appeared dormant if not dead. In view of his public statements on relief, the president could not be expected to initiate any distribution of federally owned commodities, and the new Congress would not convene until the following December. The idea of distributing the Farm Board stocks to the needy, however, kept surfacing with each discussion of the board’s enormous holdings, which had reached 250 million bushels by the close of the congressional session. At the end of March, the board announced that it would make no further stabilization purchases...

  11. CHAPTER FIVE The End of the Hoover Era
    (pp. 73-87)

    The day before Herbert Hoover left office, he signed into law an act authorizing the Red Cross to exchange some of its Farm Board cotton surplus for articles containing wool, thus bringing down the curtain on his administration’s response to the paradox of want amid agricultural surfeit. The winter of 1932–1933 was an exceptionally cold one, and the families of those who had been without wages for several years needed warm clothing, but typically, the wool-for-cotton exchange measure came too late to ward off the cold of what many observers have characterized as the worst winter of the Depression....

  12. CHAPTER SIX The Promise of the New Deal
    (pp. 88-107)

    When Franklin D. Roosevelt took office on March 4, 1933, proclaiming that the nation had “nothing to fear but fear itself” and promising direct, vigorous action, the banking crisis had eclipsed both the relief and agricultural problems. Roosevelt responded immediately, declaring a national bank holiday, and calling Congress into special session to deal with the banking collapse. Originally, Roosevelt intended to convene Congress for only a few days to pass emergency banking legislation, but the cooperative mood of the incoming Congress and the pressure of the nation’s needs made him receptive when Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace and Assistant Secretary...

  13. CHAPTER SEVEN The Little Pigs: The Genesis of Relief Distribution
    (pp. 108-128)

    The contrast between burdensome supplies of agricultural products and widespread deprivation did not immediately provoke the new administration into arranging for distribution of surplus food to the hungry. The idea was certainly familiar from the Farm Board wheat donations, and a specific proposal for a federal agency to coordinate efforts to procure farm surpluses for the urban unemployed had been made to Roosevelt by an old friend in May and forwarded to Harry Hopkins at the time of his appointment.¹ Yet more than six months of the new regime elapsed before an effort was made to apply farm surpluses to...

  14. CHAPTER EIGHT The Federal Surplus Relief Corporation
    (pp. 129-151)

    Pragmatic, appealing, improvised, and flexible, the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation (FSRC) was in many ways an incarnation of the experimental spirit of the New Deal. Conceived in an informal conversation among friends and hastily established in an atmosphere of urgency, the new corporation was not the product of a careful policy-making process. It was seen by its creators as a temporary emergency measure to transfer agricultural surpluses to the unemployed until such time as the New Deal could bring about recovery, put the unemployed back to work, and restore balance to agriculture. In fact, the policies and constituencies established by...

  15. CHAPTER NINE The Corporation in Conflict: Competition with Private Enterprise
    (pp. 152-176)

    The corporation’s troubles began even before the incorporation papers were filed. On October 3, the evening newspapers reported that the administration was considering extending the processing tax to pay for the expanded surplus distribution program, and the morning papers of the fourth repeated the story: “Additional processing taxes on food and farm products probably will be levied to finance the Government in relief work, Administrator Harry L. Hopkins announced yesterday.… Hopkins proposes to extend both processing and compensatory taxes over whatever commodities the relief corporation needs for distribution to the unemployed,” reported theWashington Post. “There is no need for...

  16. CHAPTER TEN Transfer to the Department of Agriculture
    (pp. 177-204)

    On November 18, 1935, the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation was transferred to the direction of the secretary of agriculture. The corporation’s offices were moved to USDA, and its name was changed to the Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation (FSCC). Transfer to the Department of Agriculture was more than a simple change in the locus of administration; it marked the beginning of a process by which food assistance was increasingly divorced from federal relief and integrated with the Agriculture Department’s price support programs for commercial agriculture.

    The 1936Annual Reportof the FSCC explained the move this way: “In 1935 it became...

  17. CHAPTER ELEVEN Accommodation to Agricultural Priorities
    (pp. 205-233)

    The immediate impact of the shift to Section 32 funding and USDA direction was an almost complete cessation of the flow of commodities. According to the “Memorandum of Understanding” worked out between Davis and Hopkins, the Commodities Purchase Section of the AAA was to absorb the Procurement Division of the corporation once the transfer was complete. In any case, the Commodities Purchase Section had been making all purchases involving USDA funds for several months because of differences over procedure between the AAA staff and the Naval supply officer who headed the Procurement Division. Accordingly, early in October, the chief of...

  18. CHAPTER TWELVE Food Assistance: The Legacy of New Deal Policy Choices
    (pp. 234-255)

    In June 1937, the Roosevelt administration, once again flirting with the seductive notions of a balanced budget and a restoration of business confidence, dramatically cut spending and sharply reduced the WPA rolls. As summer gave way to autumn, the stock market fell off precipitously, and the layoffs began, initiating an economic nightmare variously called a recession or a depression, depending upon how closely one was associated with the administration. By March 1938, 4 million people had been thrown out of work.¹

    Predictably, the cities and states, which had only grudgingly shouldered responsibility for relief of the unemployables, were unprepared for...

    (pp. 256-312)

    In the years sinceBreadlines Knee-Deep in Wheatwas first published in the mid-1980s, food assistance in the United States has expanded and diversified. The rate of participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, has nearly doubled, from just over 8 percent of the population in 1986 to more than 15 percent, approximately one American in seven, in 2012.¹ School lunch participation has increased by more than a third, and school breakfast participation has tripled.² Participation in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, popularly known as WIC, has more than...

    (pp. 313-314)
    (pp. 315-318)
  22. NOTES
    (pp. 319-364)
  23. INDEX
    (pp. 365-376)