• U.S.

FOOD: Crisis Coming

9 minute read

The statisticians talked in a babel of tongues and it was left to the U.S. housewife to see the truth without words: the U.S. was in for trouble with the most vital of all supplies—food. She knew it from the simple evidence: her grocer’s shelves and her butcher’s hooks were emptying. Whether she tried, last week, to buy canned baked beans or soups or pork chops or coffee, she found she was getting up against it.

If all the U.S. housewives could have pooled their collective opinions it would have added up: 1) a food crisis is rapidly approaching; 2) if nothing effective is done, the crisis will mount steadily to a peak next spring; 3) currently nothing effective is being done about it. The housewife thought it was shameful—and it was. Sober-sided Paul Willis, head of the Grocery Manufacturers of America Inc., said, without exaggeration: “A scandal far greater than the rubber situation looms in the near future. Unless immediate steps are taken to coordinate this country’s system of food production and distribution, a major food shortage is a certainty.”

The situation was doubly shameful because no one could treat the food problem as a disastrous Act of God. The harvest year 1942 was the most bounteous since the Pilgrims came to Plymouth Rock. The Japs and Nazis had cut the U.S. off from only a few more or less exotic foodstuffs. (Examples: caviar, anchovies, patée de fois gras.) Thus, with reason, all over the land the U.S. housewife and her menfolk were beginning to ask: How come a bottleneck in the middle of a horn of plenty? But there was no one bottleneck. There were nine.

1) Manpower. The half-billion acres of fertile U.S. land, where almost any kind of food will grow, make six million farms. Tractors, combines, hybrid corn, better animal breeding—story-book developments—have boosted production 40% above that of World War I.

These farms and acres, machines and animals need some twelve million hard workers to keep them going. A year ago. the Agriculture Department urged farmers to produce as never before. Then farm help was plentiful. But as the crops bloomed into harvest the draft and juicy war jobs started taking farm people away. About 570,000 left farms in 1940. More than 1,000,000 left in 1941. By seeding time next spring, an estimated 1,300,000 more will have gone. Now farmers can no longer tend all their acres, milk all their cows. They must somehow reduce operations, sell herds or sit down and admit they are licked.

So output goes down. By next summer, 10,000 Minnesota and 10,000 Kansas farms will be sold or simply abandoned to weeds. In fertile New York, 1,400 farms have already gone out of production. Before snow flies 35,000 cows will be sold off Northeastern farms, and that means 64,000,000 fewer quarts of milk.

To replace the hired hands farmers must employ people they cannot trust with costly machinery and expensive dairy cows—untrained city people, school children, oldsters. From the U.S. Employment Service one Connecticut farmer got an epileptic, a drunk and a man just out of an insane asylum.

2) Transportation. A farmer’s work is never done. After harvest he must get his stuff to market—to the creamery, the stockyards, the elevator, the buyer, the grocery shelf where the raw bounty of the field becomes the housewife’s food. For this the country has built its grand, intricate railroad and truck system, the many-geared machinery of warehouses, outlets, middlemen, packing plants. When one cog grinds, there are fewer prunes on grocery shelves.

Now whole cogs are slipping. The Army makes enormous demands on railroads, whose reserve equipment has dropped to the lowest in 23 years. But the farmer must move his hogs and grain when he can—and he runs head-on into a mess of difficulties. Example: last week millions of bushels of soybeans worth $1.60 a bushel were shipped to market, but, since growers and buyers lacked shipping permits, hundreds of freight cars full of beans were stopped at Southern and Midwest railroad centers and ODT threatened to have all the cars unloaded at the shipping points even though elevators were jammed with grain and neither processors nor farmers had storage space.

3) Metals. Everybody knew 16 months ago that something drastic should be done about farm machinery. But even though metal supplies were getting drum-tight nobody did much until last week. Then WPB sliced machine output another 50%, to a maximum of only 20% of the 1940 amount, concentrated the remaining production in smaller-to-medium firms, and set the important matter of repair parts at 130% of the 1940-41 output. All that is WPB’s province. Now Agriculture Secretary Claude Wickard, who long avoided telling farmers the bad news about machine shortages, will take on the rationing of farm equipment.

4) Government Purchasing. U.S. farmers must feed 35 million U.S. families, five million soldiers and sailors (each of whom eats about twice as much as a civilian) and help nourish the United Nations (see chart).

For Lend-Lease Allies, the Department of Agriculture buys $5 million worth of food a day; in 18 months it has bought a billion pounds of meat and a billion pounds of dairy products and 22 other foodstuffs worth $1,750 million. Main purchases: dried peas and beans, pork, lard, sugar, raisins, cheese, dried milk and eggs, fish, canned apricots and tomatoes.

How much the armed forces buy is not announced. But this twice-compounded uncertainty affects the housewife’s supplies, for Government purchasing agents find they must revise their estimates upward and upward month by month. Result: confusion that makes some foods plentiful one month, scarce the next.

5) Hoarding. Most U.S. citizens would rather forget that a word like hoarding exists, but painfully plain is the fact that many a citizen wife is hoarding—even if only a couple of pounds of coffee. Hoarding brings sudden business spurts to grocers, mercury-quick demand, uncertain and spotty supplies.

Officials are partly to blame: in August Claude Wickard announced that meat would have to be rationed in four months or so; in a few days housewives had cleared grocery shelves of all canned meat. Grocers quake every time someone hints at a specific shortage.

6) Waste. Every day the U.S. wastes enough food to feed a large city. Example: an estimated 20 tons of butterfat go down sewers as greasy wash-water in Iowa creameries. Another example: the waste of precious vitamins and food in careless paring of potatoes, apples.

7) Irrationing. Sense-making rationing, the cure for hoarding, was needed when the first distress signals came. Until all-out rationing comes the grocer is the unwilling U.S. food rationer; he doles out his dwindling stocks to satisfy old customers, keep new ones. In California, retailers try to discourage hoarding by telling customers paper-packaged coffee stales in a few weeks. Many a grocer pushes lines that are plentiful. Other salesmen appeal to customers’ patriotism. Philadelphia and Chicago stores limit purchases of scarce lines. But nothing the grocer can do will iron out injustices of location and the ceiling-price happenstance that gives Boston 30% of its normal beef supply while New York gets all it needs, that gives San Diego 1,750,000 lb. of meat for three months instead of the needed 14,850,000 lb. Nor can the grocer correct the mixup that came with OPA’s attempts to curb price rises by putting ceilings on wholesale pork. What OPA did was to force many a small packer close to the wall, cause slaughterers to resort to evasions like over-grading meat cases, and farmers to reduce feeding operations. Farmers think the sensible thing to do is: put a definite supporting price, say $12 a cwt., on hogs over 275 lbs. for 1943 at Chicago—maybe less than that in January when marketings run heavy, and more in August when supplies are scant.

8) Too Many Cooks. Washington piled confusion on confusion: Claude Wickard’s Agriculture Department deals mostly with farm production and byproducts like wages and migrant labor, eyes suspiciously right & left.

But above it is WPB’s Food Requirements Committee, of which Wickard is chairman. On it is represented many a branch of the Government, the Army, Navy, BEW, Lend-Lease, State Department and WPB— each a pressure group in its own sphere. Theoretically this Committee plans the domestic food picture, harmonizes conflicts and takes the end result to WPB’s Requirements Committee to get the critical materials needed to grow food, and cultivate, harvest, transport, process, package and distribute it.

The arrangement is promising, but so far it works badly: there is a scramble for authority, plus suspicion, politics, delays, circumventions, backbiting. In the Committee’s five months it has done little but recommend. And other Washington agencies have a finger in the food mess: the Office of Civilian Supply (machinery), War Manpower Commission, War Labor Board, Office of Defense Transportation, Department of Justice, James F. Byrnes’s Office of Economic Stabilization.

9) Politics in Food. On these men and agencies, farm-bloc politics, old laws, bureaucratic habits and the pernicious one-crop system combine to exert tremendous pressure. This year, because nobody had courage enough to resist the pressures, U.S. farmers used 53 million acres to grow 900 million bushels of wheat. That and last year’s carry-over are enough to last two years. And on 24 million acres that could better be used for food the U.S. grew 14 million bales of cotton, which, with 10.5 million bales left over from 1941, gives the U.S. a normal two-year supply. Next year an even greater production of wheat and cotton is expected.

Officials know what should be done—tell farmers to grow needed food and change the hindering allotment laws and regulations. But nobody has had the courage to whisper more than a faint tsk! tsk!, just as nobody has had the courage to end the farm-labor shortage by deciding definitely how many men are needed in the armed forces, in mining, farming, industry and transportation and then seeing to it that men are put in those essential jobs.

Plainly needed is a Food Director with authority equal to the czars named to end chaos in rubber, war production, economics. Until one is named, shortage in food may become a more particular crisis than any in the famous crisis series to date.

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