Writing the epilogue to the new edition of Breadlines Knee Deep in Wheat had that sort of “full circle” feel to it. Breadlines was my first book; I wrote it because I wanted to keep my teaching job at Hunter College, and the tenure clock was running out.
Although it was a piece of history writing, it was in many ways before its time. “Food Studies” did not exist, and there was little if any interest in food in academic departments. It did its job of securing my tenure, but let’s just say it was not widely read. Now food studies is a rising academic star, the food justice movement is attracting the energy of a new generation of vigorous, creative young people, and graduate students come up to me at conferences and thank me for my work! I am immensely gratified by the sense of having contributed to both the academic food studies phenomenon and the birth of a new social movement.
Breadlines played another important role in my life, one that connects me to all of you.
As I took my seat at my Group V KNFP interview in 1984, Raydean Acevedo asked, “Janet, was writing Breadlines Knee-Deep in Wheat an act of leadership?” Now I came into that interview totally unprepared for the emphasis on leadership. I was intrigued by the idea of learning about something outside my field, and by the adventures I had heard about from a friend in an earlier Group, but I was not, at that point in my life, someone who could self-identify as a “leader” or even “potential leader.” Such hubris was completely counter to my socialization, but I recognized a friendly “softball” question when I heard one—or maybe I just saw an ally in Raydean. “Certainly,” I replied and deftly steered the conversation toward hunger in America and the world, topics about which I was prepared to talk. No more uncomfortable leadership talk, and I snuck in the back door of the Fellowship Program—which oddly enough did free me to consider writing a form of leadership.
Breadlines is essentially the origins story for federal food assistance, the complex of programs which now provides about 100 billion dollars a year in assistance to low income people, reaching one in four Americans. It is a large and essential piece of our safety net, far surpassing what we generally think of as “welfare” in both coverage of those in need and the adequacy of assistance provided. I originally undertook research on food programs as a graduate student in an effort to explain their “failure,” but while I was digging in the National Archives, uncovering their New Deal origins, advocates and citizens were agitating for their reform, beginning the transformation that produced today’s relatively robust array of provisions (SNAP, WIC, School Food and nearly a dozen other programs). The epilogue that I spent most of last year writing brings the food assistance story up to date and offers an explanation for the relative “success” of food assistance compared with welfare. To keep track of the components of this explanation, I use the ABCs: Agricultural politics, Business appeal, Core values, Devolution, and finally Effective advocacy.
At this writing, however, every one of these factors is to some extent threatened. This is where the leadership issue surfaces once again. Our society, with its mounting inequality and thoroughly inadequate provision for people in need, can not afford to lose these programs. I am looking for opportunities to speak out about the future of food assistance and the role of advocacy. Contact me through KFLA or at firstname.lastname@example.org if you need a speaker or want to learn more.