Comparing Government and Cultural Responses to Food Security Following the Great Depression & Great Recession
By Grace Scheidler (’22)
In its most basic form, food is a source of fuel, but we all know that a meal means so much more. We can look to a culture’s culinary tradition to find their history, and the United States is no exception. The way we view food now—both in terms of taste and the importance we place on food security— is the culmination of changes in trends and attitudes throughout the decades. People are most receptive to change when the existing system fails them. It is well-documented that times of economic crisis are often accompanied by a cultural overhaul in some way, as seen in the changes in American food over the years. .
With the onset of both the Great Depression in 1929 and the Great Recession in 2008, there was a marked increase in food insecurity followed by government intervention to provide relief. The stigma surrounding direct relief in the 1930s as well as the inefficacy of the existing systems at the time made the most efficient approach one in which the government helped people help themselves. This was accomplished through sponsoring and distributing nutrition research to help Americans maximize calories and nutrients per dollar. Following the Great Recession, government programs like SNAP were crucial in assisting the food insecure; in addition, Americans economized by eating out less and opting instead for smaller indulgences, such as relatively inexpensive childhood comfort foods. Following both crises, the government used modern technology at the time—radio in the ‘30s and the web in the ‘00s—to distribute nutrition information, which helped promote healthier American diets overall. In the ‘30s, this meant a decrease in diseases caused by malnutrition, and in the 2000s, “healthier” meant a diet lower in calories and fat. As a point of reference, I will be comparing two documents analyzing food insecurity and government relief, one written about the Great Depression—a chapter taken from the book Breadlines Knee-Deep in Wheat: Food Assistance in the Great Depression—and the other a journal article written after the Great Recession, “The Economics of Food Insecurity in the United States.”
The American attitude toward relief of any kind during the 1930s was very different from that of the mid-2000s. The prevailing mindset at the time valued self-sufficiency, with the expectation that in times of need everyone would help out their neighbor and that would be enough. When the Depression hit, the majority of direct relief was consequently left to private charities. While there had certainly been economic downturns before the Great Depression, none had resulted in the cataclysmic scale of unemployment and subsequent food insecurity of the 1930s: “the number of jobless workers…grew steadily until the spring of 1933 when…approximately 15 million persons, or a third of the workforce, were out of work” (1). Such widespread economic downturn demanded attention beyond encouragement to help out one’s neighbor, and the existing relief structures proved woefully inadequate: “the number of families receiving assistance quadrupled between the first quarter of 1929 and early 1931” (2).
Better-organized direct relief in the form of cash grants, food orders, soup kitchens, breadlines, and flop houses, and commissaries (which made use of the paradoxical surplus of agricultural products) addressed this increase in food insecurity (3). Another form of government-sponsored hunger relief was the widespread institution of school lunch programs, though this wasn’t put into national law until the National School Lunch Program in 1946. These programs took advantage of excess agricultural products, as the government would purchase surplus crops and hire people to turn them into school lunches. While all of these efforts at direct relief no doubt helped, they were not the most effective forms of relief due to logistical problems and cultural attitudes.
Consequently, the primary government response to the increase in hunger was to help people help themselves. Due to the large stigma associated with relief at the time, many families who could have applied for relief instead lived on bare-bones budgets, cutting corners where they could. Some opted to eat just two meals a day instead of three, and most people also cut back on expensive luxury food items, like meat and fresh fruit (4). Though less expensive, the swaps they made were nonetheless intentional and nutritionally equivalent to the higher-priced foods, and this was in a large part due to the nutritional information sponsored and made available by the U.S. government.
The food rations of World War I a little over a decade before had been a successful trial run for the food shortages of the Depression. The war-time rationing kickstarted a wave of nutrition science that would carry over into the decades to come. During the war, the government distributed nutrition pamphlets illustrating how one might achieve a balanced diet despite limited access to normal foodstuffs. A precursor to Depression Era meals, these pamphlets advertised swaps—like dried peas for beefsteak—based on their comparable nutritional value, not taste (5).
Understanding this reasoning is key to reconciling how truly stomach-churning meals with names like “Canned Kidney Beans and Frankfurter Salad Bowl” or “Lima Beans de Luxe” ever came into existence (6). The inventors of these meals did not have particular palatability in mind. The promotion of these and similar meals represents a fundamental shift in the way American culture approached diet. Americans viewed food as “a nutrient delivery system, a kind of edible apparatus for which taste, form, and texture were incidental qualities” (7). Meals were broken down into their most basic constituents: newly-discovered vitamins, minerals, and calories.
During the Depression, the stakes were even higher than during the war in terms of finding suitable nutritional options for a nation on a budget. With such a prolonged economic downturn, the long-term effects of limited access to food became apparent as diseases brought on by malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies were on the rise. With almost a third of the American workforce unemployed, a much larger food-insecure population was at risk for diseases brought on by poor diet. Consequently, scientists were able to make connections between deficiency of key vitamins or minerals and diseases long associated with a lack of food such as pellagra, beri beri, even “spring fever”. As the science developed, nutritional guidelines were released that were “tailored to the individual’s gender, age, and level of activity” (8). This new information was often distributed in the form of flyers and handouts from various government agencies, like the Agricultural Adjustment Administration or the United States Department of Agriculture. .
In addition to the pamphlets similar to the ones distributed during the Great War, nutrition scientists and government officials took advantage of modern ways of communicating with the general public, both urban and rural, to educate them on how to economically eat a balanced diet. Radio shows geared toward those in charge of putting food on the table were incredibly popular during this period and were further tailored to the local area. For example, those living in rural areas with the ability to garden might listen to a radio show with tips on producing more food at home, or on how to make the most of a harvest through canning. These methods that helped people help themselves were able to transcend the logistical struggles that inhibited the efficacy of direct relief. This was especially true with those living in rural areas who were particularly hard-hit by the Depression in terms of food insecurity. Not only had they been struggling longer economically, but distributing relief in rural communities was disorganized and varied greatly from one area to the next as compared to their urban counterparts.
In this way, governmental and cultural responses to the Depression era increase in food insecurity were intertwined. While there was direct relief for those in most need, the biggest way the government was able to address those affected by food insecurity was through funding nutrition research and sharing that information with the public. From a nutritional perspective, this led to a healthier American diet overall as people became aware of the consequences of malnutrition. While some Depression Era-meals are best left in the 1930s, the attitudes and relief practices put in place no doubt left their mark on American culture. Because of changes brought about by the Depression, the government had a much more active role in hunger relief, resulting in systems like food stamps eventually being put in place to better assist with future crises. In addition, going forward, both rural and urban Americans knew the nutritional makeup of their food and approached mealtime as both a scientific endeavor and a means of carrying on a family tradition.
The Great Recession paralleled the Great Depression in many ways, with one notable analog being the sharp increase in food insecurity in the wake of an economic meltdown. According to “The Economics of Food Insecurity in the United States,” in 2009 “more than 50 million persons in the United States lived in households classified as food insecure,” which was over a 30% increase from the numbers measured in 2007 (9). Not only did families experience sudden drastic changes in income through job loss or decreased hours, but also the cost of day-to-day goods skyrocketed: “The price of household necessities has surged, with milk topping $4 a gallon in many stores and regular gasoline closing in on $3.60 a gallon nationwide” (10).
In terms of who was most affected, the Great Recession differs from the Great Depression: the working class was the hardest hit in the 1930s, whereas following the crash of ’08, the middle class was the most affected. Another difference between the two economic tragedies was the government’s ability to respond to the wave of food insecurity: unlike the Great Depression, following the Great Recession, there was already a framework in place that was better able to offer relief to those affected.
Rather than the patchwork of private charities and locally-run hunger relief Americans depended on in the 1930s, two large government programs were the main ways food insecurity was addressed: SNAP and NSLP, or the National School Lunch Program. Eligible families were able to apply for SNAP benefits and get an Electronic Benefit Transfer card to supplement or completely cover grocery bills, depending on family income and size. The NSLP was a federally-assisted program where children attending school could qualify for reduced price or free lunches during the year. This was a direct result of the lunch programs set up during the Depression. It emphasized the importance of bringing meals to schoolchildren and ensured schools met federal nutritional requirements (11). Though there was much less stigma surrounding relief programs in 2009 as compared to 1929, it was nonetheless a factor that, along with transaction and information costs, resulted in only 67% of eligible people receiving SNAP benefits in 2008 (12). Many Americans chose to make lifestyle changes as opposed to relying on government relief in response to a tightening of the household budget.
These lifestyle changes were reflected in food trends of the years following the Great Recession. Many Americans shopped smarter, opting for cheaper cuts of meat and generic brands when grocery shopping. By and large, Americans also stayed in and cooked at home instead of going out. A contemporary report found that “sales at Olive Garden are down 1.4 percent, and Red Lobster sales have dropped 4.6 percent. LongHorn Steakhouses has seen a 5.4 percent sales drop, while Chili’s is down 5.2 percent” (13). Coupled with a decline in eating out was an increase in cooking classes, showing how Americans wanted to improve the meals they made at home. Studies have long shown the benefits eating meals at home can have, and the comfort derived from a home-cooked meal cannot be negated in a time of such insecurity.
In addition to the emotional comfort found in a family meal eaten around the dinner table together, the shift in food trends as a result of the Recession led to a healthier American diet overall. Home-cooked meals are often less calorie-dense than restaurant alternatives, and typically lower in saturated fat and sodium. As in the Great Depression Era of the 1930s, consumers were seeking out food that would give you “the biggest nutritional bang for your buck” (14). People wanted to keep their health as a constant during such uncertain times, and increased cultural awareness of the nutritional value of their food helped greatly with this.
Similar to the Great Depression, another approach the government took in addressing food insecurity was through educating the American public on nutrition. Under the Obama administration, measures like “menu labeling requirements mandated by the 2010 Affordable Care Act” made it “easier for consumers to identify lower-calorie and otherwise healthier away-from-home foods” (15). Another huge government-sponsored program was the “Let’s Move!” campaign spearheaded by First Lady Michelle Obama. Smart-shopping guides, budget meal plans, and nutritional guidelines found their way into American schools and homes, just as they had in the 1930s. The government also used websites to most effectively distribute this information to the general public, much as they had in the ‘30s with radio. What all of this resulted in was “both working-age and older adults increased their attention to nutrition and their use of nutrition information when shopping for food” (16). People compensated for their limited budgets by making sure what they did buy made the most of the money they had, much like those who lived during the Great Depression.
During the Recession, Americans turned to comfort food. One interesting nuance of the Recession’s impact on American diets was how people responded by looking to the past for comfort. For many adults, this was reflected in an increase in the purchase of childhood favorites. Affordable luxuries that, when coupled with feelings of nostalgia, helped Americans through times of financial duress. According to Kraft’s earnings statement from 2009, sales of their macaroni and cheese dinners were up double digits from the same period the previous year. Other Kraft products, like Oreos, Capri Sun and Kool-Aid, also saw strong sales (17). Comfort foods also became trendy again, with big plates of simple spaghetti and meatballs gracing the covers of culinary magazines. People looked beyond their personal history for comfort, too. Articles written in the wake of the Recession shared lessons from those who lived during the Great Depression. A popular YouTube series that came out during that time was one called “Great Depression Cooking with Clara,” in which a 93-year-old grandmother named Clara shared recipes from her Depression-Era childhood with an online audience. Americans turned toward simple treats like a childhood cookie or a happy video of a sweet old lady making Sunday dinner, to get through the hard times of the Recession.
The response to the increase in American food insecurity split into two main avenues: direct relief, in the form of food or cash handouts, and indirect relief through economical nutrition education. During the Great Depression, heightened stigma surrounding direct relief resulted in more disorganized and inadequate programs, compared to the Great Recession. Following both economic crises, the government addressed American dietary concerns through funding and distributing research on eating a budgeted nutritionally-balanced diet using the technology of the time. This information altered the way Americans thought about food and shifted cultural trends—ultimately resulting in a healthier American diet overall. Though it may not be the first place we think to look when analyzing the effects of an economic crisis, the relationship between a culture and its food—and the government’s role in it all—can tell us a lot about how things have changed over time.
- Poppendieck, Janet. Breadlines Knee-Deep in Wheat – Food Assistance in the Great Depression. University Of California Press, 2014.
- Ziegelman, Jane, and Andrew Coe. A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression. New York: Harper, 2017, 45.
- Ibid., 260.
- Ibid., 75.
- Ibid., 249.
- Gundersen, Craig, Brent Kreider, and John Pepper. “The Economics of Food Insecurity in the United States.” Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy 33, no. 3 (2011): 281–303. https://doi.org/10.1093/aepp/ppr022.
- Dash, Eric, and Michael Barbaro. “Recession Diet Just One Way to Tighten Belt .” The New York Times. The New York Times, April 27, 2008. http://www.nytimes.com/
- Gundersen, Craig, Brent Kreider, and John Pepper. “The Economics of Food Insecurity in the United States.”
- Mayerowitz, Scott. “America’s Nine Favorite Recession Foods.” ABC News. ABC News Network, May 7, 2009. https://abcnews.go.com/
- Helm, Janet. “The Recession Diet.” Nutrition Unplugged, August 19, 2013. https://www.nutritionunplugged.com/
- Todd, Jessica E, and Rosanna Mentzer Morrison. “Less Eating Out, Improved Diets, and More Family Meals in the Wake of the Great Recession.” USDA ERS, March 2014. https://www.ers.usda.gov/
- Mayerowitz, Scott. “America’s Nine Favorite Recession Foods.”
Grace Scheidler is an American Studies and Economics major at the University of Notre Dame. Her essay was originally written for Professors Ben Giamo and David F. Ruccio’s American Studies course ‘A Tale of Two Depressions.’