Plowed Under: Food Policy Protests and Performance in New Deal America

Plowed Under: Food Policy Protests and Performance in New Deal America

Plowed Under: Food Policy Protests and Performance in New Deal America

Plowed Under: Food Policy Protests and Performance in New Deal America

Synopsis

During the Great Depression, with thousands on bread lines, farmers were instructed by the New Deal Agricultural Adjustment Act to produce less food in order to stabilize food prices and restore the market economy. Fruit was left to rot on trees, crops were plowed under, and millions of piglets and sows were slaughtered and discarded. Many Americans saw the government action as a senseless waste of food that left the hungry to starve, initiating public protests against food and farm policy. White approaches these events as performances where competing notions of morality and citizenship were acted out, often along lines marked by class, race, and gender. The actions range from the "Milk War" that pitted National Guardsmen against dairymen, who were dumping milk, to the meat boycott staged by Polish-American women in Michigan, and from the black sharecroppers' protest to restore agricultural jobs in Missouri to the protest theater of the Federal Theater Project. White provides a riveting account of the theatrical strategies used by consumers, farmers, agricultural laborers, and the federal government to negotiate competing rights to food and the moral contradictions of capitalist society in times of economic crisis.

Excerpt

In all my experience in political life I never heard of anything so truly
absurd as helping the people by killing pigs and destroying crops, by
paying the farmer not to toil, paying the farmer not to work his land. …
There is no virtue in waste. There is virtue in relieving the poor and helping
them, but there is no possible place where you can find virtue in waste.

—Clarence Darrow, September 1933

FAMED ATTORNEY AND LEADER OF THE AMERICAN CIVIL Liberties Union Clarence Darrow, like so many others, thought the 1933 Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) to be immoral: How could the government pay farmers to leave fields fallow while children rummaged in trash for food and thousands of Americans stood in breadlines day after day? How could President Franklin D. Roosevelt actively throw away food in the face of so much want? Darrow surely knew the currency of his rhetoric and likely believed in it as well. The cultural code of conduct regarding food and the nobility of farming were so deeply engrained in the American consciousness that the AAA seemed to flout basic American morality when hunger’s call to obligation was most insistent, when access to food was truly at stake for millions of Americans. Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace anticipated that this New Deal agricultural program would “face an unfavorable public reaction,” but he underestimated the fervor, ubiquity, and persistence of criticism leveled at the AAA. Throughout the 1930s, citizens from across the social spectrum denounced the program as immoral and unjust and did so in . . .

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