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A History of Emergency Food in the US

WhyHunger shares a short timeline of the food system and social issues that impact hunger and poverty in the US. Thanks to author Jan Poppendieck and Leona Davis of the Community Food Bank of Southern AZ for additions. Originally published in 2013.

Jessica Powers

on 20 August 2015

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Transcript of A History of Emergency Food in the US

A History of Emergency Food in the US
The first Thanksgiving is the first instance of emergency food distribution in the US, according to Bill Means of the Oglala tribe. Indigenous people’s knowledge of local foods and preservation methods saved the lives of colonists, who were ill-prepared for the winter.
By the 1790s, the concept of Federalism, the relationship between state's rights and the federal government, has taken hold. This is important later as we consider enrollment rates in government nutrition programs, which are federally administered but provided through individual states.
The Great Famine in Ireland leads to the first instance of forced migration to the US. British penal laws keep the Irish Catholics in extreme poverty and force them to subsist on a monocrop of potatoes. A potato blight destroys their primary source of food, pushing many Irish to emigrate to North America. In the US, Irish newcomers are met with racism and disdain for being in need.
Amidst a major economic depression, management attempts to cut workers' wages. The labor movement gains traction, and over the next three decades, union wages increase and the number of hours in an average work week drops.
Drought, monoculture, and poor environmental stewardship lead to severe dust storms in the Great Plains. Farmers leave the Dust Bowl and migrate to California to pick crops. Congress enacts the first hunger relief programs, purchasing surplus agricultural products from farmers to help feed hungry citizens and to stabilize markets. People are initially so opposed to charity and a perceived threat to the marketplace that the use of surpluses for food assistance is delayed, resulting in milk and hogs being dumped in a river instead of distributed for free. The term "relief" is dropped and the program gradually gains bipartisan acceptance.
Charity and volunteer-run school lunch programs become vital in communities across the country, and are overwhelmed by the number of children in need. The government acknowledges that charity alone is not enough, and New Deal agencies step in to assist. The federal government begins distributing commodities to school lunch programs. Military recruiters who are faced with malnourished young recruits lend support to the programs. The National School Lunch Act is approved in 1946.
After the Second World War, commercial food companies are left with surplus manufacturing facilities. Using food technology developed in the production of military foods, companies begin to market processed food in single-serve or convenience packaging for use in the home. Many US industries formerly making weapons transition to nitrogen-based fertilizer production. Government policies to support crop prices and limit production are largely dismantled, and large-scale, industrialized production rises.
There are two creation stories about the beginnings of food banking in the late 60s. In the first story, John van Hengel gathered donations for a soup kitchen in Arizona where he volunteered and was also a guest. He was so adept at it that eventually he needed to create warehousing and began distributing food to other locations. His was a model of efficiency rooted in genuine concern for the poor.

The second story is about the Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Cruz County, which has its roots in the Black Panther Breakfast for Kids Program. The Black Panther Party community service or “Survival Programs” created positive models within the community to help individuals meet their needs. This model was rooted in the community and values of social justice and self-determination.

The dynamic tension between the two approaches arguably exists to the present day.
A recession and decline of aid from the government leads to an increase in the number of hungry people. Faith-based groups and civil society step in and become the backbone of charitable aid. Breadlines or soup kitchens in the modern sense can be found in major cities.
In response to a 19% poverty rate, President Lyndon Johnson introduces the War on Poverty during his State of the Union Address. A series of legislative initiatives (including the Food Stamp Act of 1964) expand the government's role in education and health care as poverty reduction strategies.
CBS News runs a report called "Hunger in America," which stunned the public with depictions of American children dying from malnutrition. Public opinion and Congress galvanize, and Sen. George McGovern forms a Senate Select Committee on hunger to address the issue, which leads to legislation that establishes the principles of free food stamps and nationwide eligibility standards.
Cesar Chevez and Dolores Huerta lead the United Farmworkers Union in a grape boycott, alerting a new generation to the plight of farmworkers and the politics of the plate.
The Emancipation Proclamation frees slaves in the US and plantation owners lose their source of agricultural labor. Within two years, every slave state passes Black Codes: laws restricting the rights of blacks that effectively maintain cheap labor, reduce black landownership, and perpetuate hunger and poverty.
Second wave feminism leads to an increase in women working outside of the home. Food processors take this opportunity to market convenience foods to women and families gradually begin to change the way they eat.
President Ronald Reagan begins dismantling the social safety net in earnest, believing in supply-side economics and "send[ing] the welfare bums back to work." Emergency food providers work to meet the needs of a rapidly rising number of people who suddenly have no place else to turn for assistance.
Rising gas prices, housing and healthcare costs, unemployment, wage disparity, and stagnant wages relative to inflation lead to an explosion in the number of food pantries in the US.

In 1976, Section 170 of the Internal Revenue Code provides tax incentives to corporations for donating food, which many attribute to the increase of poor quality food in the donation stream.
Present day. The demand for emergency food continues to rise. What is the future of emergency food and how will we end hunger in the US? To learn more about food system issues, visit https://www.whyhunger.org/getinfo

To get involved in emergency food and community food security, attend the Closing the Hunger Gap conference in Portland, Oregon, September 13-16, 2015: http://thehungergap.org/.
The First Farm Bill
With rising rates of obesity and diet-related disease across the US and changes in consumer demand, emergency food providers work to improve the nutritional quality of food and to provide nutrition education. NYC Mayor Bloomberg attempts to restrict SNAP users from purchasing soda with their benefits, prompting conversations about health and personal choice, or whether SNAP should function as a nutrition program or an income support program.
TEFAP, which was established as a temporary program, would have expired, but the belief that poor Americans now depended on this program too much to end it led to designating the TEFAP program as permanent in the 1990 Farm Bill. Passage of the Bill Emerson Food Donation Act in 1996 minimizes liability in good faith donations.
In 1998, Jan Poppendieck publishes Sweet Charity?: Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement, which critically examines the role of food distribution as a possible diversion from the impact of advocacy.
The discovery and conquest of the Americas leads to a transformation of indigenous food practices.
The Arrival of Colombus
The First Thanksgiving
The Great Famine in Ireland
The Emancipation Proclamation
Labor Movement
The Dust Bowl
During the Great Depression, the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 creates a precedent for government involvement in farming by creating a "farm safety net" to stabilize prices for farmers and to help feed the hungry. The Act allowed the government to control the supply of commodities (initially wheat, corn, cotton, rice, hogs, and tobacco) on the market.
Earl Butz becomes Secretary of Agriculture under President Nixon. He encourages farmers to plant “from fencerow to fencerow” and to “get big or get out." His polices support the overproduction of cheap calories, transforming American agriculture.
Earl Butz and the Rise of Corn Production
Growing Support for School Lunch
The First Food Banks
Hunger in America
Rise of Food Technology
War on Poverty
Grape Boycott
Oil Crisis and Tax Incentives
Now What?
Obesity and Choice
Reagan and the Erosion of the Social Safety Net
Sweet Charity?
USA for Africa records "We are the World" in response to a famine in Ethiopia. Food aid, generally commodity crops purchased by the government, is shipped overseas, often not reaching those in need. The 1985 Farm Bill abolishes government grain reserves, leaving US farmers at the whim of market, and leading to the ‘80s farm crisis. The complicated system of subsidy payments we have today is the result of trying to save farmers from the consequences of this Bill.
Food Aid
In 2004, Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) becomes available. In 2008, the Food Stamp Program is renamed SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). The number of food insecure people--including workers in the food system--who rely on SNAP peaks at 47.6 million. One in four eligible people are not enrolled in the program.
Changes to SNAP
Photo credits (in order of appearance): Tania Guerrera, Bettmann/Corbis, j.h.young, unknown, Esther Bubley, Virginia Mary Art, the National Archives and Records Administration, Dorothea Lange, Urban Farm Hub, Library of Congress, Natural News, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Life Magazine, J. Howard Miller, unknown, Bettmann/CORBIS, Walter E. Bennett, Department of Labor, CBS 1968 television special “Hunger in America," Mad Moose Mama, US Daily Review, Purdue University, unknown, The Hip Hop Democrat, Reagan and the Erosion of the Social Safety Net: San Bernardino, The Common Place, Calif.: Franklin Press, (NEEDED TEFAP), 1980, Down Jones Newsire, Food Aid: cover of “USA FOR AFRICA We Are The World,” (CORN MONEY), 1985, Sweet Charity: cover of Jan Poppendieck’s “Sweet Charity?,” 1998, Cronica de Sociales, Lizz Levang, NYC Health Department.
American scientists in Mexico develop the first high yield wheat variety. Yields are so high that Mexico is able to export wheat by 1960. Hybridization, working through natural selection processes as has been done for millennia, is very different from genetic modification (though the race to increase yields through hybridization no doubt led to modifying organisms through whatever means available).
Hybrid Crop Research Begins
US corn farmers are harvesting record crops, but they continue to struggle because costs of fertilizers and other inputs have also skyrocketed. Continued "fencerow to fencerow" farm policies have encouraged monocropping (one crop planted continuously in the same place), leading to soil degradation-- requiring even more fertilizer inputs.

Corn Yields and NAFTA
In the aftermath of Earl Butz and the fencerow-to-fencerow campaign, American farmers are left with massive amounts of commodity grain and insufficient demand to sell on the global market. In order to dispose of the huge quantities of surplus goods purchased by the Commodity Credit Corporation (especially cheese) in order to support farmers, Congress authorizes the Temporary Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) to provide states funding to cover costs in storing and distributing surplus commodities to those in need. The TEFAP program solidifies food banks as a central part of food aid and social service across the US.
Global Economic Recession
Green Revolution technologies implemented worldwide. Developed countries, multi-national corporations, the World Bank and the IMF work to increase agricultural production in the global South. In the short term, it increased yields and brought some people out of poverty; in the long run, it drove many people off their land into even worse poverty in cities, increased urbanization, decreased food security, and wreaked havoc on the environment.
Green Revolution
In the 1950s, the US began giving loans to least developed countries (LDCs) in order to promote the economic tenets of neoliberalism and gain access to the extraction of commodities (minerals and agricultural products). After a series of global economic disasters, the IMF steps in to loan money in exchange for compliance with Structural Adjustment Policies geared towards free trade and the US adjusts monetary policy to compete for capital in global markets.
The North American Free Trade Agreement between Canada, Mexico, and the US leads to disputes over corn dumping. The effects of dumping lead to a devastation of Mexican small farmers and corn-based economies, and an increase in immigration to the US in search of new jobs. Workers in the US lose their jobs as companies move to save on labor costs. Other Free Trade Agreements follow.

Future Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell crafts a memo to the US Chamber of Commerce advocating that businesses assert political power in the face of restrictions for consumer protection, safety, and the environment. Business mobilization results in an increase in lobbying efforts by companies and systematic deregulation.
Powell Memorandum
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