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

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

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

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


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.


“For the American farmer, 1932 was a year of singular misfortune,” reported the New York Times on 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 be a decided falling off in production.” On the same day, according to another Times report, a leading New York social worker told a Senate committee that relief agencies were losing their battle to prevent starvation. “Deaths due to insufficient food have been reported in several cities,” declared H. L. Lurie on behalf of the American Association of Social Workers, and he warned of possible violence by the unemployed if adequate relief measures were not taken.

For many Americans, this juxtaposition of hunger and abundance had become a central symbol of the irrationality of the economic system. “A breadline knee-deep in wheat,” noted commentator James Crowther, “is obviously the handiwork of foolish men.” While oranges were being soaked with kerosene to prevent their consumption in California, whole communities in Appalachia were living on dandelions and wild greens. Corn was so cheap that it was being burned for fuel in county courthouses in Iowa, but large numbers of cows, sheep, and horses were starving to death in the drought-stricken Northwest. Dairies were pouring unsaleable . . .

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