How we respond to food crises
First, an announcement:
April Flours is a month-long series of talks arranged by Cultures Group. For a donation of $45, you can see all of them, including a few with me, Ellie Markovitch & whole grain wizard Dawn Woodward.
One day last week my son came home all fired up to plant wheat. He had been to a talk at his school, the community college, about the war, and was eager to contribute efforts that will help address the cascade of problems caused by the Russian invasion. Since he worked at Oechsner Farms last summer, an organic grain farm in Newfield, New York, planting wheat was the obvious solution at hand. A farm near us has a combine sitting idle, as if ready to animate this project, but I discouraged Felix, because one resource does not a grain farmer make.
If there was a shortage of another staple like potatoes, which require little processing before they land in our kitchens, I'd tell him to go find some empty land and get busy. His success would be dependent on the soil and the season, and he'd do better if he studied the crop first with someone who understands the many moments in a potato plant's life that need attention. But at least he wouldn't need an elaborate cleaning and drying system to get the grains into shape for storage and milling. Of course he'd have to get however many potatoes he grew out of the ground and washed and sold, but he could do that stuff himself, to a certain scale. If growing food grade grains was straightforward, I think a lot more regional grain projects would've popped up by now, almost 20 years into an American interest in local food.
A few regional grain projects were inspired by the global commodities crisis of 2008. Carolina Ground began as bakers in North Carolina sought a solution to the staggering price and decreasing availability of organic wheat; Red Hen Baking in Vermont found themselves in a similar problem solving mode. In this looming grain storm, I wonder what will percolate. More small mills? More links between bakers and farms?
I find myself looking at the past, my favorite pillow, seeking clues for how the world responded to crises that affected the flow of food. America is full of World War I wheat stories — from farmers planting fencerow to fencerow in the Great Plow-up to meet shortfalls caused by global crop failures and the war, to food conservation efforts from US Food Administration that discouraged consumption of wheat to send it overseas to our troops & allies.
Sarah Wassberg Johnson wrote a post about Save A Loaf A Week on her wonderful blog, The Food Historian. This is part of her World War Wednesday series, and all of her writing is interesting and informative: be sure to check out her work.
More of the story of wheat in WWI is told in a booklet called “War Economy in Food,” made by the United States Food Administration — governmental arm was established to help redirect American food to US troops & allies. I marvel at the scope of the movement. People — 10 million households, or nearly half the population — signed pledges that they’d adhere to Meatless Mondays, Wheatless Wednesdays, and do without a particular food every day of the week.
The booklet has lots of advice on saving all the essential foods, but of course, I’m sticking to the wheat words. Here are a few:
“Food has now taken a dominant position in the war, and we must ask the American people to sacrifice far more than was at first thought necessary. We have exported the whole of the surplus of the wheat from this harvest after reserving to ourselves an amount sufficient for our normal consumption of seed and flour until the next harvest, and therefore the amount of wheat flour that the United States can contribute to mix with the war bread of our associates in the war this winter will be simply the amount that our people reduce their consumption month by month. In other words, every grain of wheat or its products that the allies receive from the United States from now on will be exactly the amount which our people have saved each month on their behalf.”
The recipes focused on using cornmeal, barley, rye and oats to free up some of those grains of wheat, but breads were still wheat-based, to keep a similar heft. Most bread was still made at home in the 1910s, so the advice on the page below, to modify your own recipes, was likely well used. I’d love to see how women integrated alternative grains, and how families accepted them. “Food Will Win the War” was the wraparound theme, so that sense of participating in the fight for democracy must have been motivating.
Restaurants had to ration too, and were reported for disobeying and serving foods on days they weren’t allowed, or for having sugar or bread on the table. Canning and other food saving methods, such as not wasting a bit of it, were encouraged through a variety of media & teaching venues, including trains where home economists showed the proper methods.
My grandmother was two years old when America entered the war. Her mother and father spoke only Polish, and I wonder if their Albany, New York neighborhood was plastered with posters of the food campaign? The church and markets must have interpreted limits on purchasing for this immigrant community. I wish I could sit with this family and eat a wartime meal! I wouldn’t be able to comprehend the differences.
So much has changed in the last century, yet I can’t help comparing our current food response to war. There’s no rationing yet, except for rising costs for food and fuel, which makes Americans sacrifice at different rates. I don’t know if we’d have a food administration now — I can’t quite see the octopus of the food system allowing government voices to say what people could and couldn’t eat and when. But I see a parallel humanitarian impulse in the grassroots #cookforukraine & #bakeforukraine fundraising.
Thanks for the signal boost, Amy! Another thing to consider - New York and Pennsylvania were the major wheat-producing states in America prior to the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, which made trade with the rich agricultural lands of the Upper Midwest more accessible and profitable. Many a colonial made their fortunes in milling and the grain trade. Your recent article for Modern Farmer about the Ukrainian roots of American wheat makes me wonder what varieties of wheat were being grown back then? And could they be grown in New York again?