Eat (like) the Poor: The 1933 Relief Diet

Originally posted at proleartsblog

In the course of my research into 1930s proletarian print, I spend a great deal of time sifting through archives in search of traces of lost pamphlets. As well, while trying to understand the world that the readers of these printed materials lived in, I find myself chasing down scraps of narrative. There are moments when the past breaks loose of its dusty folder, and I can actually, bodily, understand something of the experience of those people, then.

Food is one of those points of connection that can make for an immersive experience. Eating like the past, maybe while dressing like the past, is the only way we have now of embodying history as it was lived. I found a record of the food allowances that were recommended for welfare recipients in Edmonton at the lowest point of the Depression in 1933, and have long been toying with the idea of Eating the Depression for a week or two. Anyone want to live out their Supersizers fantasies and join me?

On first glance, the numbers look a little high, but of course they represent fuel for a much more demanding way of life. As a moderately-sized and moderately-active female academic desk jockey in 2015, my daily caloric target is about half of the 1933 measurement. The Relief Allotments are very heavy on starches, and very low on protein and fats. There are no fresh fruits, almost no vegetables, and no seasonings or flavourings. And, of course, the puny amount of coffee, and the complete absence of alcohol, cigarettes, and coffee cream (the staples of life!), have made it very hard to convince anyone to join me.

I determined the caloric values for the food using MyFitnessPal database. I always selected generics, and indicated any variables that I had to choose when translating from historical items to current ones. For example, “milk” in 1933 is “whole milk” or “3.25% milk” today. These are of course based on 2015 caloric values, leaving aside questions of whether today’s (selected, modified, monstrous) potato can equate to the Depression-era potato. See Michael Pollan for questions of food politics. We can expect that the food given on relief would have been the cheapest varieties, with little incentive to rigorously apply measures and quantities. My caloric estimations, therefore, are the highest possible values for any given item.

These food values represent the direct relief allotment to a married couple in 1933 (divided by two to obtain the amount of food per adult). There would have been the expectation that the direct relief would be supplemented when possible by home-grown garden produce. At this time, unemployment relief was administered directly by the City of Edmonton, with some funds transferred from provincial and federal governments. Married men (and families) were allocated direct relief (i.e. welfare support in the form of necessary goods and services) in the form of grocery vouchers that were taken to any accepting grocer, clothing, and rent payments. Cash relief (i.e. welfare payments in the form of money) was not available until after 1935, and even then it was not adopted universally until the postwar Unemployment Insurance Act was put in place.

Single men were provided for in terms of a bed and meal ticket for 40 cents a day, used for local rooming houses and cafés. The concentration of masses of unemployed men in the cities was a major cause of concern to the authorities. Relief camps were established by the provinces to house and feed unemployed men en masse, while also demanding hard physical labour on large-scale public works such as highway building and construction of many of the national parks. By the end of 1932, a national system of such camps was established by the federal government under the auspices of the Department of National Defence. The conditions and “slave labour” wages of the camps were strongly resisted by the men; by 1934, the Relief Camp Workers’ Union had organized its first strike, and mass protests funnelled into the On-to-Ottawa Trek of 1935.

Single women were often overlooked by early relief schemes. They were expected to take very low-waged work (particularly service and retail work), or to look to relatives for support. Some were aided by a patchwork of relief and charity supplements, while others took up more illicit forms of trade for survival.

Caloric requirements for the pre-WW2 era are very difficult to pin down, although most studies note starvation experiments carried out by the Allies on conscientious objectors as key to the development of postwar nutritional science. I found this very surprising—alarmist studies of the rising levels of obesity take it as fact that energy expenditure has been steadily decreasing since the early 20th century, but almost none of these give actual values, or even clear estimations, for energy expenditure prior to about 1970. The first reports of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (from 1953 and 1957) peg the requirements for the “Reference Man” at 3200 cal/day, and the “Reference Woman” at 2300 cal/day. Reports of the US Army Quartermaster indicate that soliders’ rations were set at roughly 3000-4000 cal/day in camp.

Optimizing the relief diet represents one of the earliest applications of nutritional science and statistics to the population at large. This was refined in the nutritional guidelines developed alongside rationing in WWII, and continues in the Canada Food Guide of Today. Previously, calculations of food requirements and energy expenditure were mostly taken up by army quartermasters; indeed, the convergence of the military and state intervention in the administration of relief during the Depression was strongly remarked upon at the time. The relief ration, like the relief camp, is a visceral example of biopolitics in action.