(Mal)nutrition and the 'Informal Economy' Bootstrap: The Politics of Poverty, Food Relief, and Self-Help

By Anais, Seantel | Newfoundland and Labrador Studies, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

(Mal)nutrition and the 'Informal Economy' Bootstrap: The Politics of Poverty, Food Relief, and Self-Help

Anais, Seantel, Newfoundland and Labrador Studies

DURING THE GREAT DEPRESSION, Newfoundland was a veritable laboratory for the study of nutritional deficiency diseases such as beriberi. Over a half century later, the cod moratorium encouraged academics to study the nutritional implications of economic disaster. (1) These parallel waves of unease over diet led to the creation of several bodies of research and forced the state to address the threats posed by widespread poverty. Much of the concern during these two periods--as expressed in academic, state, and popular discourses--focused on the effect of unemployment and poverty on nutrition. Rather than providing adequate support to the poor, however, both periods of economic turmoil were ones in which the government of the day emphasized a series of self-help solutions in which the impoverished were expected to take responsibility for their own nutrition. This essay examines the ways in which both the self-help movement of the Depression era and the promotion of the "informal economy" in the 1990s were advanced as solutions to malnutrition.


The economic depressions of the 1930s and the early 1990s are two of many periods in Newfoundland's history in which food security emerged as a major cause for concern. Although both crises prompted academic study, a variety of economic and policy analyses, and the creation of mechanisms to address the two crises, few authors have related the two. Furthermore, the self-help movement of the Great Depression era provided a historical basis and a precedent for a limited state response to the later crisis. The first section of this essay offers a history of beriberi and discourses surrounding self-help during the early 1930s. The second examines institutional literature related to the dole and its status as a mechanism for both moral and fiscal regulation. The third section concerns the connection between nutritional deficiencies and the self-help movement.

I examine the use of the concept of the "informal economy" in media, state, and academic discourses, and argue that the term was employed as a means of responding to malnutrition within the context of the economic crisis. During the cod crisis, the ethic of self-help discourses of the 1930s was resurrected, allowing the government to promote the "informal economy" as a new and radical response to the effects of unemployment on nutrition and diet. Despite the passage of half a century, there are striking similarities between self-help ideology and "informal economy" discourses in Newfoundland, not the least of which is that they emerge, as Gerry has argued, during slumps in "national and international economies alike." (2) The mobilization of the notion of an outport "informal economy" is a political tool rooted in the self-help movement of pre-Confederation Newfoundland.


Hunger is difficult to measure. Beriberi, a thiamine deficiency, is generally associated with one's inability to acquire an adequate and varied diet. Such a biomedical conceptualization facilitates quantitative investigation of disease, but also depersonalizes and depoliticizes hunger. Beriberi and poverty in Newfoundland were intricately connected, and it bears asking how the state responded to these problems. By considering beriberi and its associations with poverty we can repersonalize hunger. Examining the government response to beriberi can also contribute to an understanding of how a state policy, driven by self-help ideology and an inadequate public relief system, prolonged beriberi among the most vulnerable sections of the population.

Nutritional deficiencies occur in individuals whose intake of nutrients consistently fall below a minimum standard. Our current knowledge of vitamins and their dietary function allows us to deduce that beriberi occurs because the staple foods of its sufferers contain too little thiamine, and that supplementary foods were insufficient to correct the deficiency.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

(Mal)nutrition and the 'Informal Economy' Bootstrap: The Politics of Poverty, Food Relief, and Self-Help


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?