Eating in Times of Economic Uncertainty

By Sage Dilts













I am straining just a bit to hear my grandpa Bob’s soft and gravelly
voice. With his one working vocal cord he is striving to answer my
question about what it was like growing up in Berkeley during the uncertain
times of the Great Depression and the start of the Second World
War. I ask because I wonder how his experience might parallel my current
situation of living in the East Bay, with not a lot of money, during a
time of global financial insecurity.

I am struck, as I always am, by Bob’s memory and by his technical understanding
of how the world works. His analysis of social issues is not
particularly progressive but it is thoughtful and intensely economic. His
bachelor’s degree is from Cal in Agricultural Economics, and he worked
briefly as a farmer and then in agricultural lending until his retirement.

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He explains that the East Bay was a diverse place early on and that
families ate largely according to culture. His own family meals were
based on the preferences of his British-born father, which apparently
meant that his mother boiled vegetables until the flavor evaporated.

My great-grandmother Adelle was raised on a farm near Yuba City
and she was fundamentally a frugal person. I realize as my grandpa describes
his mother and her practical hardworking nature that many people
got by during the Depression because they had always lived simply;
many families that operated this way did not experience much change
in the 1930s as they lived out their modest lives.

It also becomes clear as I listen to my grandpa that currently popular
ideas about eating locally, particularly through urban agriculture, is old
news to his East Bay generation.

“We had a big lot down on Roosevelt. She [Adelle] had her big rhubarb
patch and we had a screen house that had loganberries and blackberries.
The neighbor behind us had a big cherry tree that came over
into our yard, and they didn’t care that we picked that part clean. Our
next-door neighbor had a great big lot and he had chickens and rabbits
and a great big garden. So it was not uncommon in the city for people
to have their own little farm. When we got to be big enough, we had to
do the spadework to make our own gardens; turning the Bermuda grass
to break it up and dig out these very dense root pads. One of the things
that my mother and I used to like to do was sit out on the front steps late
in the afternoon and shell peas.”

Counter to my assumptions about my grandparents’ youth, there was
not any consistent food insecurity or great strain to put a range of
healthy foods on the table. The produce coming out of California
farms was richly diverse so Adelle had plenty of opportunity to
cook the flavor out of an array of vegetables. Luckily, in addition
to the unfortunately transformed vegetables, Bob remembers always
having lots of fresh fruit and there is some indication that his
mother managed to let some veggies avoid the boiling pot.

The climate and good soil of the rural areas surrounding Bay Area cities provided an incredible
variety of fresh foods at every season and miles of pasture for healthy meat, none of which
traveled very far to get to your table. Eating in season was simply a reality, but the peak
season of a given food was, as it can be today, the most economical time to buy. Bob’s family
would wait until watermelon was one cent a pound before getting it, and of course it was
pricelessly ripe and delicious.

“When we lived on Roosevelt I would say that our economic and living circumstances
were the equal to any of our neighbors: We weren’t flush with money and were just getting
by. I don’t believe that anyone was going out for dinner. There were no restaurants
near us, but on Shattuck Avenue there was Edy’s Ice Cream and the California Theater.”

Circumstances did eventually get more difficult for Bob’s family, a change that he connects
to the end of Prohibition. His father became less reliable and at one point left town
with all of their money. He returned with little money left and no job waiting for him.
They moved out of the house on Roosevelt and let it to Bob’s aunt and uncle who ran a
piano repair shop on Dwight and Milvia with my great-great-grandfather from England.
Bob’s parents opened an electrical repair store on College and Alcatraz and they lived in an
apartment behind the shop.

The family budget was about 90 dollars a month. After 30 dollars rent and the PG&E
and telephone bills, most of the money went to food—they had maybe a dollar and a quarter
a day for this. On the weekends they would go up to Byron and fish, bringing back many
pounds of catfish. They now had an icebox and they would often eat catfish three or four
nights in a row. They no longer had a garden but the recently established Safeway across the
street did provide a new convenience. Times were harder for others as well. Bob remembers
that unemployed men would come around looking for something to do in exchange for
food. They wouldn’t just take something without working for it, so his mother would have
them wash the windows and she would give them a bologna sandwich as payment. She
sometimes would get the windows washed twice a day a few times a week, just to give these
men something to do. This didn’t go on for too long though as the WPA programs began
and people could find good work.

My grandpa explains that once you experienced getting by on only a little it was easy
to do it again. He considers most Americans today as unprepared to live in a conservative
way, in terms of using their resources wisely, because they don’t know any other way to
live but with abundance and almost infinite choice. His example is this: “If you grow up
with lots of things to put on your broccoli, you never really know that you can eat it
plain. So when money gets tighter you don’t know what to change because you don’t know
any other way to live. Now your grandmother and I only discovered balsamic vinegar about
five years ago and now I love to put this on steamed broccoli. If money got tight I know I
could eat it with just salt and pepper or even just eat it plain. But I know that because I’ve
done it before and it just isn’t such a big deal. I have the benefit of turning back the clock to
a different way of life.

“Another piece to this is waste. Just to give you an example: If my mother made something where she had a batter
she would work at that pan till she got every bit—you would think that
she would peel the metal off. There was no waste and that was just her
habit. She did this always but it was particularly important at a time
when other people were really in need.”

Compared to today, Adelle had much less choice during her trips to
the corner grocery, but unlike today, her options were mainly limited to
things that were good for her family and the environment. Adelle would
have been hard pressed to really go wrong in her shopping in terms of
health. She also would have never had to consider whether the food she
was feeding her family contained harmful chemicals or poisoned land
or workers. “Conventionally grown” for her would have meant food as
it had always been grown, using nature’s strategies to avoid infestations.

“You had a different kind of agriculture before World War II,” my
grandpa explains, with a new tone of seriousness in his voice. “They were growing more
grains, taking land out of pasture. But it really changed after World War II. You know, it was
not thought by the general public that the use of pesticides was deleterious to our health. Just
as no one thought that atomic energy would be a problem, it was sold as being benign.
Some people were more perceptive and they felt that the way they had been doing it they
could control the insects and so why spend the money and why potentially damage the soil—
they didn’t know what would happen…so they opted out. But most people did not think this
way. Farmers didn’t want their crop eaten by bugs so when a salesman would come by telling
them they wouldn’t have to worry about that anymore, they went with it.”

If we were to walk into the average-sized
grocery store today and put over our eyes a
1930s filter so that the ten to forty thousand
different products currently available to us became
less than a thousand, maybe even closer to a hundred, we would
likely see a store only dreamed of by people in the growing local/organic
food movement. There we would be, in the store closest to our house,
surrounded by food that has organic production as the standard, that
is sourced locally and therefore seasonally, and of which only a limited
amount would be processed or packaged. In many ways the food system
in the 1930s seems like common sense and indeed maybe that was the
last time food was approached in a more sustainable way.

In honor of Bob’s background in economics, I want to look at the
numbers driving this common sense: According to the USDA, in 1933
the percentage of income Americans spent on food peaked at 25 percent:
22 percent at home and 3 percent spent out. When a quarter of
your total spending goes to feeding your family it makes sense that you
would be as practical as possible. In fact my grandpa’s family spent closer
to a third of their income on food, hence waste was simply
unacceptable. Still, the population was pretty food-secure so
families in 1933 were getting plenty for that 25 percent since
food was abundant and accessible. But this meant there was
less money for other things (and fewer things to buy anyway)
so life was simpler materially. Food was a large part of families’
lives generally, with much of their time going to its procurement
and preparation.

What is so interesting about Americans’ historical perception
of the value of food is that despite so much of their income
going to groceries, families in 1933 were still not paying
a fair price. The abundance of food in California was made
available to families through cheap resources like labor, just
as we read in The Grapes of Wrath, as well as water. Many of
the better practices of ’30s agriculture, such as the lack of pesticides
and smaller family farms providing in-season produce
to local communities, have been lost in subsequent decades to
further cost-cutting measures, making the ways in which we
now rely on externalized costs to produce cheap food rather
too numerous and discouraging to list.

Cheaper and cheaper food prices has meant a steady decline in the
portion of spending that Americans put toward food—now at an average
of 10 percent, only 6 of which is spent at home. If it is fair to see
some parallel on where families put their money and what they value,
then the significance of food in our lives has been diminished by other
material needs of modern life.

Our perception of the value of food is intrinsically tied to the strategic
freeing of the consumer to spend less time and money on subsistence
and more on all the new things being manufactured after World War II.
As this manufacturing got going, the conservative approach to life that
helped my grandpa’s family through difficult times began to lose ground
as “common sense.” Bob recalls the creeping aggression of marketing
against the values of simplicity and practicality of his youth:

“People changed because there was this entire manufacturing food
industry, proving to you that this new product that they have packaged
is really going to make your food experience a lot better than it used to
be. You had all those people who were champion advertisers and a lot
of money going to the universities to carry out experimental work, to
produce a redder apple or one that had a longer shelf life, manufacturing
nature’s product so you would like it better. They were not letting
you drift from the old way to the new way—they were pushing it with
radio and TV. It wasn’t that my mother was dying to get something different,
she was being pushed and shoved and molded to get something

The changes made to mold Americans into energetic and dependable
consumers meant that many of the skills involved in living well
with less have been lost. Like many who want to live in a different way, I
have learned to wear great-grandmother goggles to the store. I filter out
a majority of what I see, leaving mostly whole foods from near where I
live. The variety and abundance of the Northern California landscape
provides for me as it did for Adelle and her family, and I can even be
transported back to the time of crops grown without pesticides.

This great-grandmother filter on today’s store actually forces me into
paying the true cost for food, or gets me closer anyway. To buy the same
kind of flour Adelle would have found, grown in the region without pesticides,
maybe by a family farm, is to pay a premium. And that is actually
what I am interested in doing. I want to pay the full cost of my food
because not doing so means my family may eat for less at the expense of
another family that was not paid fairly for their work. Environmental
problems are just getting worse, and my health may suffer. I don’t believe
this trade-off is worth all the other things I could have bought with
the difference. Having a below-average income means I make paying a
higher price work for my budget by learning the skills and strategies
that my great-grandmother had in living with less. With older values of
conservation, the thrift of eating in season, simplicity, and using my own
labor, I can have an approach to food that also takes into account the
ways in which all our efforts to live well are fundamentally linked. I feel
that we should be able to eat well in a way that does not impact others’
ability to do so and we should be able to feed ourselves without relying
on inequalities. I know that this approach currently isn’t common sense,
but it is the only way I can think to live to be both practical and just.

Sage Dilts authors a blog,, on which she writes about
the subjects of using limited resources to eat and live well and the use of
domestic skills to practically support health and a vibrant regional food


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