The Food Armies of Liberty

By Herbert Hoover

[The National Geographic Magazine, September 1917]

That the great world war will be won at last on the battlefield of food becomes increasingly evident as the months go by. And that is a battlefield where the highest and the lowest, the youngest and the oldest, the weakest and the strongest, may do equally valiant service in the cause of our country. Herbert Hoover, the man who saved Belgium from starvation,, is now, as National Food Administrator, the general-ill-chief of the food armies of Liberty. In two momentous addresses recently delivered, he has strikingly pointed out how we may be soldiers in the American food army, how we will help the cause of Liberty by enlisting, and the dark consequences that may ensue unless we do enlist. They constitute a new drum-beat to duty; they sound a new note on the great subject of individual responsibility. The NATIONAL, GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, >seeking to send the message to the uttermost reaches of the country, publishes these addresses in full in this and the succeeding article. It hopes every member of the Society will join the movement to make the food army of America 100,000,000 strong.

I have been asked to review the reasons why we are pleading with the American people for stimulation of our food production, for care, thought, and economy in consumption, and elimination of waste. Further, I wish to review the methods by which these things may be accomplished.

Briefly, the reasons are simple. Our Allies are dependent upon us for food, and for quantities larger than we have ever before exported. They are the first line of our defense; and our money, and ships, and life blood, and, not least, our food supply, must be of a common stock.

If we cannot maintain our Allies in their necessities, we cannot expect them to remain constant in war. If their food fails, we shall be left alone in the fight, and the western line will move to the Atlantic seaboard.

It is thus a matter of our own safety and self-interest. It is more than this, it is a matter of humanity, that we give of our abundance that we relieve suffering.

It is not difficult to demonstrate their needs, the volume of our obligation, and the necessity of great effort on our part. In normal pre-war times, England, Ireland, France, Italy, and Belgium were to a large degree dependent upon imports for their food supplies. They yearly imported over 750,000,000 bushels of grain, together with vast quantities of animal and fat products. Belligerent lines have cut off their supplies from Russia, Bulgaria, and Roumania, and the demands of Germany on surrounding neutrals have reduced the supplies from those quarters.


Of more importance, however, is that the submarine destruction of shipping has necessitated that the farthest distant markets should be wholly or partially-abandoned. The great markets of Australia and the Indias, are now only partially accessible, and gradually the more remote markets will be more and more restricted . until a year from now, when our own new ships will be in numbers to help.

The last harvest in Argentina was a failure, and until the next harvest, even that contribution to their supplies is cut off. Beyond this, again, much food is lost at sea; perhaps ten per cent of the actual shipments are sunk en route.

Therefore, the load of even normal imports is thrown upon North America—the nearest and safest route.

Of no less concern than the dislocation of markets and the losses at sea is the decrease in production among the Allies. If forty million men, are taken out of productive labor and put into war and war work, there can be only one result, and that is diminution in production of food.

Further contributing causes to this diminution are the lessening in the amount of fertilizer which is available, through shortage of shipping and losses at sea, and the consequent reduction in the productivity of the soil itself. This year the decrease in production stands out in more vivid silhouette than ever before.

We have had a stock-taking by the various food administrators and departments of agriculture in Europe, and they find that the production of cereals this year has diminished, about 525,000,000 bushels of grain below normal. This shortage in production, added to normal imports, gives 1,250,000,000 bushels of grain that must be imported by the Allies during the next twelve months, if consumption is kept normal.

Their cattle, sheep, and hogs have diminished by over 30,000,000 animals, and these reductions are bound to go on with increasing velocity, because short supplies have necessitated eating into the herd.


How great the burden upon the United States is may be made clear by a few figures: During the three-year pre-war period we averaged an annual export of 120,000,000 bushels of grain and 500,000,000 pounds of animal products and fats. During the last fiscal year we exported over 400,000,000 bushels of grain and 1, 500,000,000 pounds of animal products and fats.

During this, period we really over-exported—we, ourselves, are selling our animals faster than we grow them, and our stock of foodstuffs just prior to harvest was relatively the lowest in our history.

As the causes of Europe's shortage grow in intensity, our load this next year must be of much greater weight.

As our harvests and those of our Allies are now measurable, we now know the size of the world's larder for the coming winter, and it will measure insufficient unless we can reduce our consumption and waste.

Our Allies are making every possible effort to reduce consumption and eliminate waste. Most of the principal staples are dealt out to the public under one kind or another of a restriction. Fines up to $500 are levied on persons who throw away stale bread. But despite all these efforts, there is not such a reduction in national consumption as one might expect.

Besides the men in the trenches and the men working ten to eleven hours daily in the shops, millions of women have been drawn into physical labor, and all of these require more food than they required under normal conditions in pre-war times.

The result is that while the saving in food is appreciable, it is not as much as one would expect.

There is one feature of all these efforts toward conservation in Europe that stands out vividly—the non-working population is in large part composed of the old, the women, and the children; they are the class upon which the incidence of reduction largely falls. The people in war work are in national defense, and they must have the first call on all supplies. Therefore, any failure on our part in supplying food will fall upon the class to whom our natural sympathies must be the greatest. But there is a point below which it cannot fall and tranquillity be maintained.

We have a general limitation on our food supplies to the Allies, and that is that the condition of shipping requires that all the foodstuffs sent shall be of the most concentrated sort. Therefore, the commodities which we have to send are most advantageously limited to wheat, corn, beef, pork products, dairy products, and sugar.

If we consider our own supplies, we find that we have enough of corn. We have a great surplus of potatoes, vegetables, fish, and poultry. These latter commodities do not lend themselves to shipment either from bulk or other reasons. We cannot increase, or even maintain, our present exports, of wheat, beef, pork, dairy products, and sugar without reducing our consumption.


The logical and sensible first step in adapting our supplies to Allied needs is to substitute on our own tables corn, potatoes, vegetables, fish, and poultry for those staples we wish to export. The proportion of our national diet in vegetables is very low, and it will not only do no harm to increase it, but in fact will contribute to public health.

Space does not permit that I should give you the position here of each staple in the national and international situation. I may, however, describe briefly one or two of them.

We of the United States normally raise for export about 80,000,000 bushels of wheat. Canada produces something like 100,000,000 bushels of wheat for export. Europe must import this year 525,000,000 bushels of wheat if they are to maintain their normal bread supply. With our normal export of 80,000,000 bushels, we can go but a short distance toward accomplishing that end. If, however, by conservation we increase our export to 200,000,000 bushels and Canada increased hers to 125,000,000 we shall then come within 200,000,000 bushels of the solution of the problem.

By conservation and by substituting 20 to 25 per cent of other cereals in Europe's war bread and by some imports from far-distant markets, the problem may be solved, but the margin is so narrow that any failure on our part to provide an extra 120,000,000 bushels of wheat risks disaster to the whole cause.

For us to increase exports of wheat from 80,000,000 bushels to 200,000,000 bushels means that we must make a saving of about 20 per cent in our wheat consumption. That is not a great burden for our people to bear.


This means an average saving of one pound of flour per person per week out of their five pounds' consumption, and it is not asking much of our people that they should substitute other cereals to that extent.

Now a number of inquiries arise with reference to different phases of this question, and one is why Europe does not take the corn instead of the wheat?

For one hundred years the wheat loaf has been the basis of life in Europe, with the exception of Italy. The art of household baking has long since been lost. Most of the bread is baked by bakers. For this reason alone it is almost impossible for our Allies to substitute corn bread, which cannot be distributed by bakers. Furthermore, the actual household machinery of baking—ovens, etc.— has long since been out of existence in most European homes.

Furthermore, if we are to ship corn, we must ship it in the form of the grain itself, for cornmeal does not keep well, and European countries have but little facilities for milling the corn. They are mixing cornmeal in the wheat flour; but there is a limit beyond which cereals cannot be mixed in the wheat loaf and have the bread rise, and that limit is somewhere about 25 or 30 per cent. They are using higher milled wheat than we for economy's sake, and mixing it with other cereals. It makes war bread far less palatable than our corn bread.


Another case in point is sugar. We import between one-half and two-thirds of our sugar from the West Indies. The Allies formerly drew sugar from Russia, Germany, Austria, and Java. They are now compelled to bring their demands to our market, and, therefore, we must reduce our consumption if we are to leave enough for them.

We consume from 85 to 90 pounds per person per annum. The Allies have placed their population on a sugar ration of from 21 to 25 pounds per person. Even this cannot be supplied without reduction on our part, and France has asked us to export them 100,000 tons of our supplies at once; otherwise they must stop the ration altogether. That we should refuse France is unthinkable.

Besides substitution the other great need is to save waste—the gospel of less buying, serving smaller portions, the clean plate, to use our food wisely in economy. There are a hundred avenues of saving—if we inspect the garbage can.

Again, there are commodities in which we must reduce consumption. If we are to supply the Allies and ourselves both with sugar and fats over the next winter, we simply must reduce the consumption. By fats we mean lard, bacon, butter, cream, lard substitutes, and soap. We consume nearly double the amount of fats that we need and we waste a fabulous amount.

There are other features of food conservation of national importance. One of them lies in the whole problem of national saving. Wars are paid for out of the savings of a people. Whether we meet that expenditure now or after the war, we will have to pay it some day from our savings.

The savings of a people lie in the conservation of commodities and the savings of productive labor. If we can reduce the consumption of the necessary commodities in this country to a point where our laborers can turn to the production of war materials; if we can secure that balance and get to the point where we can free our men for the army, we shall have solved one of the most important economic problems of the war.

If we are to carry on this war and carry it on without economic danger, we must carry a major portion of it now during the war from the savings which we make at the present time. If we reduce the waste and the unnecessary consumption of food by a matter of only six cents a day, we shall have saved two billions per year.

Conservation has other bearings as well. There are the great moral questions of temperance, self-denial, and self-sacrifice. We have been a most extravagant and wasteful people, and it is as truly intemperance to waste food as it is to take unnecessary drink.

Next year, in order to maintain our Allies in war, we must make even further efforts to increase the export over last year, and it is obvious that we not only cannot do so without conservation, but that unless we do have conservation we must expect higher prices.

It is often said that high prices are themselves a conservation measure, but they are a conservation measure of the nature of famine. It is conservation in favor of the rich and against the poor. The rich will have all the food and variety they need, but the poor must, under this form of conservation, shorten their food allowance and diminish their standard of living.

The only real conservation is one by which the whole population, rich and poor alike, take their part in the provision of these necessary supplies.

This can only come about either by forced measures from the government, by which all are placed on ration and the available foodstuffs equally divided, or alternatively, by a great voluntary effort of self-denial by which the added supply can be obtained without vicious action or conservation through price.


Another bearing of the problem lies in that we have had growing in this country a class of the population given over to more or less idleness and a great deal of extravagance. There grows out of this a certain amount of class feeling, in a country where there should be no class division. There is now an opportunity for that class, by a reduction in its scale of living, to demonstrate its fidelity to the national cause and its willingness to share its full portion of the national burden. In so doing that section of our people will have demonstrated something more than mere saving—it will have demonstrated a willingness to serve in our national necessity, even to the matter of personal sacrifice.

There is a phase of this entire work which has appealed greatly to us here, and that is the whole question of national service. Here is an opportunity for every man, woman, and child in this country to contribute immediately and directly to the winning of the war. It should be possible to show to the entire population that there is at least one point in which all may serve in this struggle. There should result not only saving, but the sense of service, a sense of contribution to the war itself, and a proof of loyalty and support in each and every individual.

There is no force by which conservation could be imposed upon the American people. Conservation can be accomplished in some countries by iron-clad law, or by forcing legal limitations on every individual in the country, but in our country that is not only unfeasible from the governmental point of view, but it is against the instincts of the people.


We may accomplish the same result voluntarily if we can give the people a stimulus in the knowledge that every individual has here a definite service to perform. We have, therefore, never considered this problem from the viewpoint of force, we have considered it always from the viewpoint of voluntary effort. We have asked all to join its as voluntary workers, as we are to effect by a democratic movement the results which autocracy has only been able to effect by law and organization. Indeed, we feel there is a service here greater than the actual saving and the actual practical result. There is the possibility of demonstrating that democracy can organize itself without the necessity of autocratic direction and control.

If it should be proved that we cannot secure a saving in our foodstuffs by voluntary effort, and that as a result of our failure to our country we are jeopardizing the success of the whole civilized world in this war, it might be necessary for us to adopt such measures as would force this issue, but if we come to that unhappy measure we shall be compelled to acknowledge that democracy cannot defend itself without compulsion—which is autocracy and is a confession of failure of our political faith.

If we can secure allegiance to this national service in our 20,000,000 kitchens, our 20,000,000 breakfast, lunch, and dinner tables; if we can multiply an ounce of sugar, or fats, or what-not per day by 100,000,000 people, we have saved 180,000,000 pounds in a month. If we save a pound of flour per week, we save 125,000,000 bushels of wheat per annum.

It is this multiplication of minute quantities—teaspoonfuls, slices, scraps—by 100,000,000 and 365 days that will save the world. Is there any one in this land who cannot deny himself or herself something? Who cannot prevent some waste? Is not your right to life and freedom worth this service?

The Weapon of Food

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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