The Origins and Lifespan of Food Assistance Programs during the Great Depression

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Student Biography

Author: Vincent Gottfried Wisehoon

I am a senior history major in the college of Arts and Sciences, and will be graduate in May of this year. I have spent my entire life in Syracuse, and have always planned on graduating from this institution, and finally being able to fulfill one of the principal benchmarks in my life has been a true blessing. The experiences and the relationships I’ve formed here -both academic and personal- have shaped me and inspired me to become a better person, and will continue to do so for the rest of my life. Being published in Chronos in my senior year is an indicator to me that the school is as grateful for my participation within it, as I am of my journey with Syracuse University.

What interested you in this topic?

This paper’s topic is on the federal response to hunger during the Great Depression in the U.S. I began learning about the existence of hunger in the modern world when I began taking Food Studies classes at the David Falk school. Food Studies has since become my minor. I immediately become interested in the scientific and social causes behind things like “food insecurity” and “food deserts” and the various public and private policies that shaped the state of our food network today. Such terms didn’t exist eighty years ago, and in fact the study of food was very minimal. I wanted to understand how the nature of feeding the poor was to be understood when such a realm in academia didn’t exist. I figured there had to have been some flirting with anti-poverty and anti-hunger responses before any theories about how to properly ameliorate hunger existed. As it turns out, there were. Granted, these were crude measures that were not designed until there was a need to fight mass destitution in the face of one of the world’s greatest melt-downs, but policy to initiate these measures was taken up by officials with the power to do so as early as the 1930’s. The larger part of this essay details this story.


What original research did you conduct?

My research reconstructed the arguments made by many elected politicians and chairmen for and against surplus commodity redistribution. Many of the smaller examples were drawn from a few books or old dissertations written on the history of the corporations installed by the government to reduce hunger. Other, more prominent voices, such as those of Henry A. Wallace, Milo Perkins, or Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt, I did more narrow research on. Wallace and Perkins made a series of publications and statements pitching the first food surplus responses, some of which I was able to obtain in physical form from archives through the Inter-Library Loan system, and they were drawn upon for the detailing of the systems put in place. Finally, photoscans and physical copies of old pamphlets, newspapers, and similar artifacts were used to help solidify and back up the themes talked about from a different perspective.


Did you encounter any obstacles?

There were a few minor obstacles conducting research. One was the curious lack of interest most writers have in the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation and its later reincarnations. This is perhaps due not only to the lack of academic research on food insecurity at the time of the depression, but also because of the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt and the myriad of policy decisions, executive legislation, charters, and new offices spawned under his control. The Presidency and the nature of the Federal Government were permanently transformed, meaning that anything not of insurmountable importance during this time is sometimes forgotten, and our understanding of the time period is reduced to a few key ideas. Concepts like the FSRC or Milo Perkins’ Food Stamp Plan are reserved for mere footnotes and examples as “some of the many” attempts to transform society and government. Despite the obscurity of the topic, once I had a vision and a few of the relevant documents, expanding my research and choosing what topics to delve into became much easier, and the paper’s completion was achieved very smoothly and far ahead of my deadline.


What did you find that surprised you?

What I was most surprised to learn was that the first pilot food stamp program was invented during this period. Food Stamps are associated with the same social justice movements as the civil rights movement and the focus put on the poor and disadvantaged during the 1960’s and 1970’s, but a very effective and stable program existed prior even to the rationing stamps accompanying the Government grip on the economy during World War II. It makes me curious of what other modern mechanics of politics exist today that had their first trials long before we often remember them to be.


If your paper was for a 401 class, how was your overall experience?

This paper was for HST 401: History of Food in the United States. We were obviously given a very broad assignment, with many paths to consider, but still professor Susan Branson gave us wonderful guidance and made her expectations of us very clear. The reading in the opening of the semester prompted us to critically think about what our research topics might be. I was concerned about not picking something too contemporary to study, but we read of research from a range of time periods from the 19th century to the present day. The ability to sculpt my own assignment and rely on my internal motivation to complete it was a rewarding experience, and I would recommend the course and the professor to any students looking to challenge themselves by engaging with the researching process -or to anyone who wants a better understanding of history!

Professor Comments

Professor Susan Branson

1. What is the historical importance of this paper topic?
When we study the Great Depression and the government’s efforts to end it, most of our attention focuses on work relief, not food scarcity. Yet, as Vincent’s paper makes clear, the Federal government made great efforts to connect the dots between relief for farmers and feeding the needy. Government programs enabled food to travel from farm to fork.

2. What impressed you about this paper?
I am impressed by Vincent’s stellar research skills and the diligence he brought to finding sources. And above all, because of Vincent’s knowledge and understanding of this historical era, he realized how significant these government programs were. He has uncovered a little-known, and perhaps understudied, aspect of government programs during the Great Depression.

3. How is this topic relevant today?
With our current awareness of the links between food production, consumption, and food rights, understanding the earliest days of food assistance and food surplus distribution may aid modern governments in the development of effective public food policies.

Photo by Dorothea Lange. Photograph is courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog.

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