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

Article excerpt

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. …