The Food Problem: 1918

In government, what is done when a problem is identified? A Committee is formed. This is not a new thought. One of the items recently unearthed in the Municipal Library is a pamphlet entitled “Report of The Food Problem Committee.” This sparked immediate questions: what was the food problem to be resolved? Who was on the Committee? What solutions were offered? How did it work out?

A slim volume, topping out at 36 pages, it was issued in March, 1918 by the Merchants’ Association of New York. Founded in 1897, the Association, whose mission was to foster the trade and welfare of New York, had previously weighed in on such matters as the development of the Catskill water supply system, regulation of telephone rates, fire alarms, and street cleaning among other civic matters. Now, a small committee of ten people was delegated to solve the problem of food in the City.

The report begins with an incontrovertible sentence: “FOOD is absolutely essential to the health and welfare of ten million people in the Greater New York Distributing District.” Who could argue with that! But apparently the CONDITIONS were unsatisfactory and serious and IMPROVEMENT slow and hard to obtain which led to CONFUSION existing everywhere. The authors then go on to promise the reader a fifteen minute discussion of the problem, past actions, the present situation and recommendations for the future. Already, by page four the problem had been mentioned a dozen times but not yet defined. Randomly capitalized words and sentences are scattered through, leading to a jumpy read.

“Outline of the Food Problem,” Report of the Food Problem Committee, 1918. NYC Municipal Library.

Hoping to avoid duplicating past efforts, the Committee identified the work of twelve commissions that investigated the FOOD SITUATION in the previous decade and commended them, because matters would be far worse if these groups had not provided their insight. A centerfold, “Brief Summary of Recommendations Shown in Previous Reports” lists reports about food supply, push carts, quantities of food at each pier terminal, milk, and more milk. At its bottom there is a notation “Within five years over ten separate investigations and reports have been made. All conclude that (1) the situation is unsatisfactory and (2) something should be done. There was no unanimity of opinion as to what should be done and a growing unrest prevails. The public is more perplexed than ever as to correct procedure and the problem remains unsolved.”

And it is here that a first glimmer of the problem comes to light: the increasing cost of food products in New York City. The price of food ebbed and flowed but the onset of World War One in 1914 impacted food production and distributions systems, worldwide, with the biggest effect in those countries that were engaged in the War. There were new military markets to be supplied and many producers and distributors turned away from domestic consumption. This created shortages and spikes in the price of food, throughout the country and certainly in New York.

In addition to reviewing the prior work of committees, the group conducted interviews with a wide range of interests including farmers, railroad men, leaders of consumers and educational and regulative agencies. They went to Washington and to Albany. They met with thirty representatives of food distributors ranging from those representing the fresh fish trade, the butter and egg exchange, the association of master bakers and the Hebrew retail kosher butchers. The Distributors Association arranged for a dinner and an overnight tour, beginning at midnight, of steamship and railroad terminals and markets that received and sold food from national and international sources.

Census Table, Report of the Food Problem Committee, 1918. NYC Municipal Library.

Based on all of this research, the Committee classified five phases of the food problem and seven factors that contribute to the high cost of food. They developed a very detailed chart showing elements within the factors that required further analysis. This is very typical of Progressive-era reformers who focused on improved efficiency and deconstructing processes and systems. There was a widely-held view that social problems could be resolved through analysis that would produce corrective measures.

PRODUCTION: The Committee identified two key issues hindering farmers: labor shortages and insufficient capital to fund planting and harvesting. They acted on both by working with City businesses to recruit workers with prior farm experience who could be deployed to the countryside for stretches of time coinciding with the planting, cultivating and harvesting seasons. However, this remedy proved unsuccessful because the farmers frequently rejected the inexperienced labor. Plus the quantity of labor required also seemed exaggerated. The Committee heaved a sigh of relief noting that there were other organizations handling this work and they, “immediately turned our data and applications over to this Commission rather than add another bureau of our own.” But they also summarized the great shift America was experiencing as people moved from rural to urban areas due to higher wages, shorter hours and predictable work weeks. They conjectured that by 1920 the populations of urban and rural New York would reverse from the 1900 counts.

In this section, there also is a brief segment about transient workers “hobos and itinerant laborers,” who picked crops. It included an analysis of the wages paid—no overtime; long hours. These practices are still in place today. For years, the NYS Assembly has attempted to enact a Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices law, only to be stymied by the Senate. It may finally become the law in 2019 and farm workers will obtain workers compensation protection, over time pay and a set work week, more than a century after this report observed the problem.

The committee, for all of its analysis, seemed skeptical of advice from educational institutions, opining, “Farmers have listened patiently to Agricultural College men and city press when told how to grow two blades of grass where one grew before. What they want to know, however, is how to market, at a profit, the one blade before they attempt to raise two.”

MANUFACTURERS: These were identified as second only to the farmers in importance for making food available. In this section the report describes the processes for preserving, conserving, preparing and converting food products. One notable section, termed the “greatest field into which the manufacturers have entered is the conservation of by-products,” which “rendered the world a most important service.” In particular they noted the millions of dollars “saved” annually by the meat packing industry that “converted every particle of the animal formerly wasted, including hair, hoofs, horns, and bones” into consumable products including edible food. In this analysis, the committee clearly did not subscribe to the strong views elicited from readers of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, published in 1904, which described in unsavory detail the contents of this “edible food.”

“Food Distributing District,” Report of the Food Problem Committee, 1918. NYC Municipal Library.

CARRIERS: By 1918, ninety per cent of food consumed in the greater New York area already came from beyond the Metropolitan region. Only milk and some vegetables were produced locally. Due to the development of refrigerated cars, trains, steamships, the City was receiving fruits from California and Cuba, coffee from South America and eggs from China. However, food deliveries in the City were “uncertain” due to the war and bad weather. Surprisingly, the committee commended the federal government’s takeover of the operation of all railroads in order to “expedite the transportation of necessary supplies.”

DISTRIBUTORS: Sixty thousand distributors employing 400,000 workers distributed food to ten million people in the Metropolitan area. The consumers were drawn from twenty-eight nationalities with “various habits, customs and modes of living” that meant “one nationality will eat what another will not.” Not only was diversity a challenge but traffic congestion from commuters, deliveries, etc. created huge inefficiencies. A New York Railways Company study showed that traffic delays more than doubled from the prior year and averaged nine minutes. Referring to earlier studies, the report states that nearly all had recommended building terminals and wholesale markets in various sectors of the city to increase access.

In an odd paragraph the report claims that it is unfair to blame wholesalers and retail distributors for the high cost of food but acknowledged there may be a few cases of hoarding and profiteering. Defending the businesses’ honor, they blamed the media for sensational articles that exaggerated these practices and created a certain “attitude” among consumers. Perhaps the “fake news” of its day?

CONSUMERS: The meetings with consumers and consumer advocates yielded three main opinions: Children are Undernourished; Food is costly and scarce; Middlemen charge exorbitant profits and the City and State should be regulating the sale of food, distributors and markets.

Eighty per cent of New York, the report asserts “are having a difficult time to make their weekly wage pay the rent, buy what food and fuel they need and have a little left for clothing and ordinary pleasures of life. THE SITUATION IS GROWING MORE AND MORE TENSE, AND DESPITE THIS GREAT VIGILANCE, THERE SEEMS TO BE LITTLE, IF ANY IMPROVEMENT IN SECURING THE BEST METHODS OF DISTRIBUTION AND CONSUMPTION OF FOOD PRODUCTS.”

The consumers hoped regulators would do something. The Merchants Association however wondered, “Cannot more be done through effective co-operation of Producers, Manufacturers, Carriers, Distributors, Consumers and Educational and Regulative Agencies?”

“What a District Map Should Show,” Report of the Food Problem Committee, 1918. NYC Municipal Library.

EDUCATIONAL AND REGULATIVE AGENCIES: These two are lumped together, and given rather short shrift with only four paragraphs summarizing their work. The report does note that both types of agencies were hampered by politics because with the change of each administration, a new set of officials took over, all influenced to some degree by political expediency.  

The Committee made three recommendations.

1) Map the city “AT ONCE” to show food distribution points such as milk stations, restaurants, storage warehouses, food factories, retail stores, and the like; the nationality of consumers and housing information. The plan was that this would lead to food distribution plans “worked out by local districts with each different nationality as a basis.”

2) Develop a central organization of consumers to focus on food access from the 1,200 existing organizations working on a host of issues.

3) Create an Inter-Committee for results so the various factors described above could understand their various problems and develop shared solutions.

The major task would be to ARRANGE TO BRING FOOD FROM THE PRODUCERS TO THE CONSUMERS IN THE MOST EFFICIENT AND ECONOMIC WAY, WHETHER IT TAKES NONE, ONE OR MORE DISTRIBUTORS. The hope was that when the City was mapped and consumers were organized the inter-committees would “know real conditions and put into force the results of their analyses and conclusions” and complained that at that point, “the majority of conferences are productive of little advancement, and despite the reports, investigations and work of committees and commissions, the Food Problem is NOT being solved.”

The final section of the report is headed: Details must be Worked Out and notes that outside committees cannot provide the correct solutions. The report concludes with the exhortation: “If we really want to do something we must STOP WAITING FOR RADICAL SUGGESTIONS and START IMMEDIATELY to work our Problem in the manner recommended above.”