Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Food Will Win the War: The New York State Food Commission

Last month’s Centennial Summer Fair at Miner Institute gave us the opportunity to learn more about the history of food and farming during World War I. From large enterprises like Heart’s Delight Farm to vacant-lot city gardeners, all Americans were urged to do their patriotic duty by producing and conserving food to the best of their ability. Not only were they responsible for feeding themselves, they also had to provide for the United States army overseas and assist with food relief efforts in Europe. The United States had abundant agricultural resources, but organization was required to use them effectively. This will be the first of three blog posts exploring this topic in more depth. Here we’ll present a broad overview of the federal and state agencies created to “win the war in the kitchen.”

A simple and direct message from the
U.S. Food Administration
Soon after the US declared war on Germany in April 1917, President Woodrow Wilson established the United States Food Administration and appointed Herbert Hoover as its head. Since 1914, Hoover had been directing food relief efforts in occupied Belgium and France, so he was well aware of the importance of food to national security. He also believed that it was possible to tackle the food problem through voluntary effort. Rather than imposing rationing or other government strictures, Americans could be persuaded that it was their patriotic duty to comply with the new food regulations. The Food Administration would provide resources and guidance, but it should work through existing organizations rather than create new bureaucratic structures.

In practice, the Food Administration came to rely heavily upon the states to carry its message to individuals at the local level. In New York, Governor Charles Whitman called for the creation of a Food Supply Commission for Patriotic Service in April 1917, which would immediately address some of the most pressing issues, particularly farmers’ concerns about a shortage of labor and consumers’ worries about rising food costs. Later that summer, legislation was introduced which created a new Food Commission under the direction of a three-man board. William Miner was one of the names put forward as a possible commissioner, though it’s unlikely he would have accepted, given his vehement opposition to all forms of government regulation.

Material produced by the state echoed the
messages sent out at the national level
The newly-constituted New York State Food Commission began its work in October 1917, under the direction of John Mitchell, the former president of the United Mine Workers of America. Within the commission there were three main bureaus: production, transportation and distribution, and conservation, each with its own deputy director. Each division then worked with organizations at the county level to disseminate information and resources. In most places, the county farm bureaus (themselves partnerships between the state agricultural colleges and local farmers) became the vehicle for the food commission’s work. In New York City and a few other large urban centers, other organizations were found that could serve this role.

New York State presented some unique challenges when it came to setting and enacting food policies. It was primarily a rural state, with about half the population engaged in agriculture, but it was also home to the nation’s largest city, with an economically and ethnically diverse population. Policies that were good for food producers weren’t necessarily good for those who were primarily food consumers, and vice versa. There were also the needs of a vast array of other food related industries to account for—processors, shippers, wholesalers, retailers. It’s no wonder, then, that the passage of the state food control bill was a contentious process that took months to hammer out.

Workers in the federal and state food bureaus recognized that food was not merely fuel. It was deeply personal and tied up with ideas about home, family, gender, and nationality. Getting people to change the way they ate—to accept “Meatless Mondays” and “Wheatless Wednesdays”—and the way they thought about food, was no easy task. In our next posts, we’ll look at the ways Hoover and his colleagues approached the food problem from two perspectives: that of the farmer and of the housewife. If food was to win the war, both parties had embrace the cause.


Report of the New York State Food Supply Commission

Report of the New York State Food Commission for period October 18, 1917, to July 1, 1918

Annual Report of the New York State College of Agriculture at Cornell University, 1918

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