Feeding the Forty Million



FARMERS should raise less corn and more hell” is the trenchant remark which Mary Elizabeth Lease supplied to the Populist movement of the 1890’s. She also poured out her scorn for the politicians, who, for the first time, had begun to propound the overproduction theory of agricultural depression.

“The politicians say we suffer from overproduction,” she stormed. “Overproduction, when 10,000 little children starve to death every year in the United States and over 100,000 shopgirls in New York are forced to sell their virtue for the bread their niggardly wages deny them.” Like agricultural thinkers since her day, she looked at the paradox of want in the midst of plenty and drew two conflicting conclusions: one, that farmers should reduce production; and the other, that barriers to consumption should be removed by economic reform.

We need not inquire too closely into her statistics about starvation among children or virtue among New York shopgirls. The science of nutrition is disclosing new and dramatic evidence that Americans have never had enough to eat for maximum national health.

In 1941, General Lewis B. Hershey told the National Nutrition Conference for Defense that in his estimation one third of the draft rejections were due directly or indirectly to deficient diet. The chief of the Medical Division of Selective Service cited this contrast: seven out of ten men examined in Colorado were accepted, while in one of the Southern states — where malnutrition is widespread — only three out of ten men were accepted.

In a pre-war survey, the Bureau of Agricultural Economics of the United States Department of Agriculture learned that among 2000 wage earners and clerical workers, 76 per cent did not have a “good” diet and 46 per cent did not have even a “fair” diet. A study made by the WPA in 1936, of 500 high school pupils in one of New York City’s poverty areas, showed that 87 per cent had a deficiency in vitamin A, 76 per cent in riboflavin, and 50 per cent in calcium. The nutritionists are properly cautious about generalizations, but it is broadly agreed that around 40 million Americans suffer from faulty diet.

To what extent stupidity and apparent laziness among these 40 million are due to malnutrition we do not know. But every nutritionist can cite cases such as that of the fourteen-year-old girl who was taken to a dental clinic with twenty-seven teeth already rotting. She was classified as the victim of a “pickle and potato chip” diet. Her schoolwork suffered from her constant fatigue, inability to pay attention, worry over trifles, and general apathy; she was a discouraging specimen to try to educate and a detriment to the race as a possible mother.

Evidence showing the extent of malnutrition and its cost to society piles higher and higher. Yet “it is a glorious thing to contemplate that as a nation we have too much,” wrote a banker in 1930. “The New Deal was necessary,” wrote one of its early apologists. “It was caused by one very simple fact: that we can produce more than enough for everybody.” The agricultural depression from 1920 to World War II, according to a writer in the 1940 Yearbook of the Department of Agriculture, was the result of “an over-exuberant production on a stable or already well-supplied market.”

Such statements added up to a dangerous aberration. “Abundance” became a catchword which somehow embraced the idea of restriction. “Restriction” became a catchword which somehow came to mean “plenty.” “Scarcity” became an ugly word among the very people who proposed it as a policy of abundance. “Protecting the consumers’ interests” came to mean reducing the production of food while 40 million suffered from malnutrition.

Much of the talk which is heard today in support of a post-war program of crop curtailment is a defense of scarcity economics to this extent: if industrial payrolls, after the war, fall to a point which will reduce food consumption, many defenders of the pre-war AAA will say food production must also be reduced. Their first reaction will be “Raise less corn,” when it should be “Feed the 40 million.”

If we go back to the phrases of the 1930’s, agricultural policy will call for limiting production to protect an ever glutted granary, which in turn is supposed to protect fixed prices, which in turn are supposed to make a prosperous agriculture, which in turn is supposed to buy factory goods and create a prosperous nation. The conservatives in agriculture will, I think, support such a program. But inspired by the finding of nutritionists, and drawing vigor from the farmers’ still powerful belief in production, a new kind of radical may make his appearance in agriculture.


IF HE appears, he will not be willing, as so many present-day farm leaders are, to fit food production to some shifting and perhaps inadequate level of employment. The radical will not say, “Let us produce only enough food for those who can buy it at our price.” He will say, “Let us produce enough food for everyone and then push it through to the consumer by public policy if necessary.” Where there is a consumer without the money to supply a healthful diet for himself, the radical will say it is cheaper to subsidize his diet than to subsidize his ill health. He will argue that it is better political morale to invest in consumption than it is to subsidize restriction.

This nutrition Populist, however, will not look to public policy as a matter of choice. He will look first to private industry. He will interest himself in the pay and the security of city workers as a matter of his own immediate economic interest.

He will go back to the Brookings Institution publication, America’s Capacity to Consume, for figures on what happens when city workers move from one pay level to a higher one. The authors cited surveys made between 1918 and 1930 which showed that families of $800 annual income spend $400 for food; families with $1300 spend $500 for food; families with $1800 spend $700 for food; and families with $2700 spend $900 for food. From another approach, if the incomes of the 70 per cent of the population making less than $2500 in 1929 had been increased to that amount, they would have spent 40 per cent more for food. The increase would have created an additional market for American farmers valued at somewhere between 10 billion dollars and 14 billion dollars.

He will cite the findings of the Bureau of Agricultural Economics, particularly the estimates showing that the high output of American wartime agriculture, far greater than in the old days of supposed overproduction, would be entirely consumed by Americans at wartime prices if their ability to buy remained unimpaired. And he will recall Howard Tolley’s illustration: If the incomes of all those who make less than $100 a month were raised to that figure, that group would want to buy as much additional food as a state the size of Iowa could produce.

To prove they are not irresponsible idealists riding a new social reform hobby, the radicals will quote such sober analysts as David F. Houston, Secretary of Agriculture in 1913, who maintained that “further production waits on better distribution.” Only they wall exploit the revolutionary significance of this fact instead of accepting the point of view that, in an industrial society, agriculture must accept consumer buying power as something beyond its power to influence, as something mysteriously ordained and above question. They will revive the crusading spirit of the 1890’s, when farmers dared to question the way industrialism then operated. They will ask whether the farmer has any interest in seeing that 40 million persons remain without an adequate diet when the farmer has the means of producing enough for all.

They will stress the farmer’s unity of interest with the lowest-paid, knowing that after about $2700 a year the increased amount spent for food is negligible. If there is $100 a week to be spent for payroll, they will wish to see it go to two families at $50 each than to one family. Best of all, they will wish to see it go to four previously jobless families. Repeated pay increases for the aristocrats among labor will not be their goal, but a large labor force employed at wages which will allow healthful diets.

For the city worker who is old, or sick, or caught between jobs, the nutrition Populist will support pensions, health insurance, and job insurance. A pork chop and dairy diet is better for health and better for agriculture than corn meal and macaroni, the new radicals will argue; so why should agriculture oppose social insurance? They will suggest diet insurance as a national policy.

The radicals within agriculture have never hesitated to tamper with the economic system if their interests seemed involved. So if there is a slack in consumption after industry is doing its best, they will try to expand the school lunch program. They will urge canteens in factories to supply at least one balanced meal a day. Where public health is particularly endangered, they will favor public kitchens. They will be interested in food-stamp plans such as the one used before the war to subsidize the diet of persons on relief, or the one now being studied, which would guarantee that no family in the country need spend more than 40 per cent of its income for an adequate diet. They will examine the commodity purchase program with renewed attention to see if it promises to serve as a channel between food production and food consumption.


THE science of nutrition promises to unsettle society as nothing has done since the Industrial Revolution. The effect of an adequate diet on the stupid, the shiftless, and the antisocial will be profound. The type of person who in the past opposed public school education because it would arouse the lower classes will again have reason for concern.

Apathy is one of the common attributes of the underfed, whether in the Orient, in German-held Europe, or in our own South. Clinical nutritionists will testify that listlessness and even poor appetite are symptoms of lack of nourishment. There is an old saying that mankind is only nine meals from revolution. But let the nine meals go by, then feed people a bare subsistence diet, and inertia is the result. Nothing affects the human creature, even before birth, more powerfully than poor nutrition.

Given an adequate diet, with the magic it works on dulled brains and slackened muscles, and persons all over the world who now “know their places” will be found making new places for themselves. To the timid and the self-centered, this prospect may be disturbing. But to farming it might well restore the moral fire which has been slowly dying since the triumph of commercial farming over subsistence farming.

Every normal person wants to feel useful. If he can also feel necessary, one of mankind’s most persistent longings is fulfilled. Farmers want to feel useful. They want to feel necessary to the success of our national life. The tradition of service is strong within them. If they accept an adequate diet for all as the chief purpose of agriculture, and pursue this purpose steadfastly, with all their scientific knowledge and all their political power, farming will have found its soul in industrial civilization. It will not only be essential as food producer, but powerful as a source of betterment of the common man — and this, farmers instinctively feel, is the single purpose of both our political and our economic systems.

“If a farmer raises one hog and cannot sell that hog at a profit, he has raised one hog too many.” That is the scarcity view, the “raise less corn” view of Mary Elizabeth Lease’s phrase and of those who have adopted this branch of farm philosophy. The nutritional standard for agriculture would put it another way: “If farmers raise 125 million hogs and there is still one family in the country without enough to eat, then farmers have raised one hog too few.”

If the additional hog cannot be sold at a profit great enough to help maintain its producer as the solvent head of a family farm and a devoted guardian of the soil, the farmer should not be blamed. He has not raised one hog too many: the economic system has fallen short.

Under a nutritional standard there would be no call for agriculture to apologize for overproduction in the midst of want, or to reduce output with the help of government payments while anyone needed food. Let the government money go to increase consumption of healthful foods, the new argument will run; that is where the breakdown occurs and that is where public policy should intervene, not on the farm.

These, then, are the four conclusions about farming for our time: —

1. The family farm must be dominant.

2. The strife of group against group must be resolved.

3. The land must be protected by a satisfactory rural life.

4. Adequate diet for all is the legitimate goal of agriculture.

These four guiding principles would restore farming’s faith in itself as a source of national strength. I believe them to be valid standards for any agriculture which is part of an industrial society. The point I submit in favor of these four is that each advances the common welfare. None is based on country interest alone or on town interest alone; yet none is based on an expectation of sacrifice. Each stems from self-interest intelligently pursued. That is why there is hope of seeing them applied in the cause of a stable agriculture.