City Diets and Democracy

By FRANCES PERKINS, An Article in Survey Graphic, July, 1941

Editor’s Note: The Honorable Frances Perkins was appointed Secretary of Labor by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933. Perkins was the first woman in the United States to hold a Cabinet position and she served longer than any other Secretary of Labor, from March 1933 to July 1945.

One of the hopes of this generation is to be able to make available to all our people the goods they need for satisfactory living. The most indispensable of these goods is food. American workers have always been among the best fed in the world. According to the data compiled by the International Labor Office in the late 1930’s, only in the Scandinavian countries, Great Britain and the British Dominions were average diets as high as in the United States.

But this average is in some respects below the standard which scientific research has set for optimum growth and health. And there are many families living below the average—families with a disproportionately large number of children.

There is no doubt that one of the reasons why many American workers and their families—out of the 80,000,000 people dependent on wages and salaries—do not receive a completely nutritious diet according to present-day standards, is that much of our knowledge on the subject of human needs is so new. Yet new information, together with the great interest in the production of citrus fruits and their very marked decline in price, and the improvement in long distance transportation which has made fruits and vegetables available in our cities all the year round, have combined to produce important changes in the food consumption of urban workers. Tomato juice which is almost a new food, and a very valuable one, is almost universally on the market. Per capita consumption of milk has also increased, as special educational efforts have been combined with methods by which low cost milk has been made available to city families with small resources.

In developing an educational program for improving nutrition, it is important to keep in mind the importance of custom in our food habits. The Labor Department’s recent studies of food consumption show the remarkable persistence of the food preferences of earlier generations in the localities studied. The tables of New Orleans still remind one of the fish, the chicken, the salads, and the greens of the French; the Bostonians still eat more beans and drink more tea than families in most other cities. In Cleveland and Milwaukee they eat more rye bread and cheese and apples and coffee. A national nutrition policy should plan to change food consumption habits only insofar as it is absolutely necessary to do so to provide all the nutrients necessary for health, efficiency, and the full enjoyment of life.

In my opinion, however, the fundamental problem is economic. More than one quarter of the families surveyed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 1934-36 did not spend enough to secure the Bureau of Home Economics’ adequate diet at minimum cost. The literature abounds with examples of the connection between economic status and health. A Children’s Bureau study of six- and seven-year old school girls indicated an inverse relationship between poor economic status and gain in weight, need for medical and dental care, number of school absences.

The Milbank Memorial Fund has recently been making an extensive medical evaluation of the nutritional status of highschool students in New York City. It has found striking differences between the vitamin-C status between the children in high and low income groups.

Studies of gain in weight and its association with economic status by the Children’s Bureau and a study of Pittsburgh school children provide further evidence of the relationship between poor health and poor diet.

Indirect evidence of the results of improper diet is provided on a large scale by the beneficial effect of school lunches. The WPA reports that nourishing hot lunches fed to school children have improved not only general health but the quality of their school work.

The proportion of our children who are found in families without adequate nutrition should be a matter of grave concern to all of us. A Bureau of Labor Statistics’ study of employed wage earners and clerical workers shows that more than 40 percent of the children in this relatively favored group live in families whose incomes are below the level necessary to provide adequate food, as well as suitable housing, clothing, medical care, personal care, union dues, carfare, newspapers, and the other sorts of recreation for which city families must pay in dollars and cents. It is a great mistake to think that a family can budget for a nutritionally adequate diet and fall far below the maintenance level in all the other goods which make up urban living. Large-city families of average size with incomes below $1,400 presumably distribute their funds to all categories of family needs without obtaining the best standards in any one.

In my opinion, even while we are in the midst of the national defense program, we should be considering economic measures which will bring about improvements in the American diet. These plans should be of two types: those for cutting the cost of bringing food from the farm to the urban consumer, and plans for certain consumer subsidies.

Processing and distribution costs bulk large in the nation’s food bill. Studies of the Bureau of Agricultural Economics show that in 1940 American consumers spent about $14,800,000,000 for foods grown in this country. Of this amount the farmer got about $6,200,000,000. The remaining amount went to pay the various charges for transportation, processing, and marketing. The latter costs cover services which are as real and as important as those rendered by the farmer. The charges for these services, however, may be unduly large either through inefficiency or monopoly control. The government should continue to take whatever measures are necessary to safeguard economy of distribution. Grading and labeling regulations which encourage efficient distribution and efficient buying by the housewife should be encouraged. There are other regulations, however, taxes and license fees which unduly raise rood costs, and they should be abolished in the interest of a sound nutrition policy.

Farmers’ curb markets, city pushcart markets, and low price milk depots are needed both to serve the consumer public and to give the farmer an adequate outlet for his products. Some farmers who are located near consuming markets now peddle their products in the cities- selling directly to retailers, or even directly to consumers. Efforts should be directed toward developing varieties of direct marketing which will eliminate unnecessary cost without bringing about other unfavorable results.

Food consumption subsidies became part of public policy in the United States in the years of the last depression when they seemed the best answer to the dilemma of farm surpluses of food products, on the one hand, and the many urban families without proper food on the other. The surplus marketing program was at first developed as a temporary measure, but there is much to be said for incorporating some of its best features into a national policy on nutrition.

The school-lunch program seems a particularly valuable addition to American institutions. More than 4,000,000 children in our schools have received free lunches during the current fiscal year. There are about 27,000,000 school children in the entire country. If all the children who now have inadequate diets were to be reached by the school-lunch program, it is unlikely that there would be many schools without some children having a free lunch. It thus seems clear that the extension of this program to all school children would have, in addition to its other advantages a very sound psychological basis. It would also provide for children whose parents have not taught them sound food habits, and give practical lessons in what constitutes a nutritionally adequate noon meal.

Provision for additional adult education in nutrition for city mothers, and very likely for city fathers, too, should be part of a national nutrition policy. We need to make available to the adults of today the newer knowledge of nutrition which was not taught when they were in school. We should make it as easy as possible to translate human needs for calories, proteins, minerals, and vitamins into terms of breakfast, lunch and supper menus. We must make it easy for average men and women to protect themselves from the unscrupulous who wish to exploit the current interest in what constitutes an adequate diet.

Many suggestions have been made for the extension of the Food Stamp Plan to all families which have been certified for public assistance and, in addition. to independent families with incomes under $1,000. Such an increase in the program would require careful planning and a considerable increase in agricultural production, but it might yield such substantial dividends in morale as well as in health that it should be incorporated as part of a national policy on nutrition.

Planning for improved nutrition should also include improvement of proper nutrition standard meals in factory lunchrooms and canteens. Arrangements should be made to provide nutritionally adequate and palatable meals at cost to men and women at their place of work with due regard for the preferences and the food consumption habits of the group to be served. Too often factory workers find it difficult to secure digestible and attractive meals near their work without paving, excessive prices. This proper food will greatly increase their working efficiency as well as personal appearance.

Developing a national nutrition policy for the United States is not a simple task. It involves a delicate balance of the interests of producers, distributors, and consumers; of farmers and urban workers. Labor, whether agricultural labor, factory labor, labor in mines, on trains, or on waterfronts has a great stake in a nutrition program, because good nutrition is fundamental to good health, and the cooperation of healthy workers is fundamental to the development of any important national policy. The problem is one that involves individual action and social action and I believe that we may look forward with confidence to finding its solution on a democratic basis.

Source:  Perkins, Frances, “City Diets and Democracy,” Survey Graphic, Vol. 30, No. 7, p. 393 (July, 1941). New Deal Network, New Deal Network, (March 24, 2014).


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