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Commentary: How Government Intervention Changed American Diets

Harper Collins

There’s a lot of buzz in Washington about reducing the size of the federal workforce. The release of the Trump administration’s first budget gave us a better idea of the political agenda for those cuts, and many valid and popular government programs could be at risk.

I’ve been reading a new book that tells a different story: “A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression” focuses on the years following the crash of 1929, and how federal involvement in agriculture, welfare and nutrition shaped the nation’s health.

Authors Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe remind us that there was a time when the federal government had almost no role in the private lives of its citizens. Although there were cycles of boom and bust in the economy, individuals expected little or no help from Washington, and Washington had little or no interest in helping individuals.


The unexpected depression of food prices in the 1920s, which devastated the farm economy, seemed to have little impact on the folks who lived in cities, where urban prosperity cushioned professionals, office workers and most factory laborers from hardship. The Roaring Twenties left the farmer behind.

And the Depression only made it worse. President Hoover’s platitudes about hard work were at odds with long breadlines, reports of malnutrition by social workers and school employees, and headlines about crops being left to rot in the fields because it was too expensive to harvest them.

The Red Cross became the chief distributor of welfare, mostly in the form of grains, milk and other staples, but their efforts were limited and inadequate. In New York, Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt paved the way for more centralized efforts to feed and clothe the people. Led by his welfare chief Harry Hopkins, a social worker, the push for a national effort came with the 1932 presidential election. FDR took over the White House from the hapless Hoover, and Hopkins went to Washington to implement the National Recovery Act.

Private welfare, always a somewhat stingy and unreliable form of aid, was replaced by national support for the needy, and every conceivable program promoted hard work as a condition for receiving support. With unemployment rising to 25 percent or more, the alternative to welfare would have no doubt triggered revolutions like those that had swept the Communists to power in Russia and the Nazis in Germany.

With the aid came the power to recommend what people ate. Home economists were held in high esteem, putting many people to work who had training in the scientific study of food. Many believe that improvements in diet prepared American youth to fight and win World War II.

Eleanor Roosevelt became the nation’s advocate and role model, adapting the White House’s menus to put on the president’s plate the same simple, cheap and often bland food that his people were eating. Privately, FDR didn’t think much of it. He came to detest the housekeeper, one Mrs. Nesbitt, who watered down his favorite stew and put meatloaf on the table rather than fresh game.

The shift in diet changed America in more ways than that. Malnutrition decreased. Prior to the 1930s, farmers and factory workers focused on intake of calories. Around the turn of the 20th century, most American adult males ate at least 4,000 calories a day to retain energy for their labors. Today, most adults should eat fewer than 3,000. The popularity of fast food and the additives that expand its production have resulted in a national crisis of obesity.

How the wave of Trump-era cuts could affect our daily lives is still unclear. But “A Square Meal” reminds us of the value of some federal leadership in the field of public health.

Keith Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal. His commentaries run every Friday on 89.3 WFPL and wfpl.org.