Hello and welcome to my newsletter, RENDERED: food history, delivered as an illustrated essay, once a month. I research, write and illustrate each essay myself, and share what I learn with you.
Today, I am delving into the England, Arkansas food riot of 1931. You may never have heard of it, but it sparked a transformative moment in US history. How could a nonviolent uprising in rural Arkansas 90 years ago be pertinent to us? In fact, it is an event that relates deeply to us today, living through the coronavirus pandemic. It impacted how the American public expects the government to respond during times of economic crisis and food insecurity.
An artistic rendering of the state of Arkansas, as we know it today. Bordered by the states of Oklahoma, Missouri, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. The star represents the capital of Little Rock. The pink dot is the town of England, where our event took place. The eastern border is marked by the Mississippi River, and the red dot is the location of Memphis, Tennessee. The Arkansas river flows through the middle of the state. (Oil pastel on kraft paper)
Like many place names in the United States, "Arkansas" is derived from Indigenous
roots. The Quapaw Tribe's ancestral lands were west of the Mississippi River, and north of the Arkansas River. The Quapaw, or Ogaxpa ("downstream people") were known as "south wind" or "Acansa" by the Algonkian-speaking peoples of the Ohio Valley, which became “Arkansas.”
Occupied by French settlements from the 17th to 19th century (with some back-and-forth with the Spanish), Arkansas was part of the territory sold to the expanding United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Napoleon Bonaparte sold the land to Thomas Jefferson for pennies, which spurred the American desire to continue westward expansion. This idea of land acquisition and territory ownership plays into the subsequent division of the land. Territory west of the Mississippi River was considered a place where Native Americans could be resettled, as part of the systematic removal of Indigenous people and destruction of their towns and farms. Some Cherokee settled in Arkansas by 1817, but after the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the United States government forcibly relocated people even further west. The aim was to strip Native peoples of their homelands, and forcibly relocate them into "Indian Country," which in many cases, meant a death sentence: in effect, engaging in ethnic cleansing.
Northern Arkansas is part of the Trail of Tears, or on the path of forced westward migration of Cherokee peoples from their ancestral homelands to northeastern Oklahoma. Other tribes that originally inhabited the area also included the Caddo, the Chickasaw, Osage, and Tunica Indians, many of whom were also forced west into Oklahoma. Today, there are no federally recognized tribes in Arkansas.
During the pre-Civil War years, Arkansas had a reputation for attracting unsavory characters (eg. criminals on the lam) from east of the Mississippi, but was considered wide open for development on the land, which had very rich soil.
It became a territory in 1819, then a state in 1836, by which time, slavery had been firmly installed as an agricultural and social institution. Laws had been passed about the conditions under which slaves could be freed, and also dictated the behavior of freed African-American citizens (for example, to live in Arkansas, one needed a certificate of freedom, and to pay a 500 dollar bond as a gesture of 'good faith,' that they would be law-abiding and self-sufficient residents). By 1840, 1 out of 5 people in Arkansas was enslaved, which grew to 1 in 4 by 1860. The institution of slavery became fundamentally intertwined in Arkansas's laws, its relationship to the federal government, and certainly a driving factor behind its economic strength.
The Homestead Act of 1862 was passed by President Abraham Lincoln (yes, that Abe Lincoln) during the Civil War, which was intended to give millions of acres of formerly Indigenous land to white homesteaders from east of the Mississippi. However, due to the way the laws were written, most of the land was passed on to large operators and land speculators. This directly impacted the organization of Arkansas, and many other southern states.
The town of England, Arkansas was incorporated in 1897; it was named after John Calhoun England, a lawyer for Cotton Belt Railroad and prominent landowner who purchased the land and divided it into lots. Typical of the southern post-Civil War Reconstruction era, wealthy landowners had acres of land to tend, and employed tenant farmers and sharecroppers to work in exchange for a place to live and a share of the crop harvest. Cotton and corn were major cash crops, and the local economy depended on them.
So what would happen to the people if that balance were to be upset?
It's 1929, and the stock market has crashed, causing the Great Depression; people all over the United States are struggling. Around the country, from Oklahoma City to Minneapolis, St. Louis and San Francisco, a series of food riots take place, with groups of hungry people raiding stores for food.
Spring 1930 brings tornadoes to England, followed by a drought of epic proportions in June and July 1930, and then screaming-hot summer temperatures, topping out at 113°F (45°C). The crop yield is low, and home gardens are barren: between 30-50% of crops are lost. No rain, no crops, no money, no food.
The President at the time, Herbert Hoover, believes firmly in bootstrapping; he started out as an orphan in Iowa who managed to make it all the way to the White House, a picture of the "American Dream." He believes in self-sufficiency, and is unwilling to admit that the American people are actually struggling. To his mind, the people support the government, not the other way around, and they are personally responsible for their own welfare; should there be any need for aid, private enterprise like the Red Cross can take care of it.
Local Red Cross chapters, run by wealthy landowning white men, are meant to shoulder the entire burden of disaster relief. But the President and the Red Cross agree on this: you can't just give aid directly to the people. They'll hoard it, or it'll take away all incentive to work. No, the people need to earn the right to feed themselves.
One form of Red Cross aid comes in the form of seed packages: 4-pound boxes of seeds are given to poor farmers to plant gardens to feed themselves (never mind the fact that there is a drought and people are starving). More and more people are dying of pellagra, a disease caused by a vitamin B3 (niacin) deficiency. A lack of clean drinking water brings an outbreak of typhoid fever. A few turnips come through at the end of the growing season, but this year has been rough on the soil, not to mention the people.
As the Red Cross is run like a bureaucracy, it is necessary to follow a specific and clear chain of command to authorize and prepare any and all aid distribution, including using specific ration forms to make requests. The Red Cross resists applying for federal aid, insisting (for some reason) on being the only source of aid.
It bears mentioning that this is the Jim Crow south, where segregation is legal, and discrimination and intimidation regularly target Black sharecroppers working land for white landowners. Sometimes, in order to receive aid, they are required to perform tasks like street cleaning. Those deemed "unworthy" of aid are simply turned away by the Red Cross. Congress passes bills that okay food for livestock, but not citizens: 45 million dollars goes to buy seed, whereas 20 million goes to feed people.
Unfortunately, in December 1930, Red Cross ration forms run out, and Red Cross chapers begin turning away families in need.
On Christmas Day 1930, the Arkansas Red Cross director conducts an inspection, and finds that money that had been given to planters and large farmers with the purpose of buying food to distribute to tenant farmers and sharecroppers has mysteriously not reached their hands. He decides that, starting in January 1931, the Red Cross should distribute food.
This brings us to January 3rd, 1931. A rural Arkansan tenant farmer named H.C. Coney speaks with a neighbor who tells him her children haven't eaten for 2 days. This is the last straw. Coney, along with fifty other like-minded farmers, ride down to demand food assistance, gathering at the home of the local Red Cross chairman, L.L. Bell. Bell refuses their request for aid, citing a lack of forms to process their request. Voilà, bureaucracy at its finest. Until now, the Red Cross has been parsing out aid drop by drop, out of fear that people would hoard supplies.
After Bell's refusal, Coney and his group ride into the town of England to resort to self-help. By now, word has begun to spread, and the original group of fifty tenant farmers has now grown to about 500, some of whom are armed, some of whom arrive with their wives. They gather in town and start forming groups and speak amongst themselves. Word travels fast, and what was once a group of 50 people mushrooms into a group of about 500. Groups of hungry farmers, both Black and white, enter local stores, flashing pistols to show they mean business.
George E. Morris, the county drought committee chairman, plantation owner and lawyer, addresses the crowd, who want nothing to do with cheap talk. This is a massive group of people who are hungry, whose children are starving; the placating speech of a well-fed bigwig falls on deaf ears.
Urgently, Morris sets about dialing the Little Rock Red Cross to rush an emergency aid request, which is swiftly approved. Once Morris gives word that help is on the way, nearby shopkeepers, they themselves struggling with financial difficulties, bring out foodstuffs to further calm the tension and feed the crowd. It is tense, but no physical violence has occurred. At the end of the day, the farmers end up walking away with $2.75 worth of rations (representing 2 weeks of food) for their troubles.
This event comes to be known as England food riot.
"Riot" insinuates violence and disruption of peace. So while the event in question did not end in bloodshed, it started among a population that was literally starving to death, in a system built upon generations of displacement and economic dispossesion. Could it not be considered violent for a State to subject its citizens to such unjust, destructive conditions? As such, it is fitting to refer to the event as a riot, not as merely a disturbance, disruption, or 'incident.'
Food riots are among the oldest form of protest and collective action. While it certainly wasn't the first food riot (nor the last), the England riot came to take on a larger role: it became symbolic of the narrative of struggling, good ol' American workers during the Great Depression. The event sparked a conversation that was heard nationally.
The Governor of Arkansas and the Red Cross tried to minimize how bad things really were, but journalists were quick to report that the opposite was true. The event made front-page news at the New York Times the next day, under the headline "500 Farmers Storm Arkansas Town Demanding Food for Their Children."
Journalists brought national attention to the seriousness of the situation, and the necessity of the American federal government to step in in times of crisis: private enterprise and community efforts just simply weren't enough. After the riot, the mayor of England, Walter O. Williams used radio and newspaper platforms to ask the nation for help, as well as writing to state senators and the Governor to request aid.
A-list celebrity of the day, Will Rogers, took great interest in the event. He was a man of great influence: a movie star, comedian, social commentator, plus a writer of a syndicated column, who was born into the Cherokee Nation. Rogers met with the President himself on January 16th to request federal relief for those drought victims, which was promptly rejected. He decided to hit the road, performing 50 shows in 18 days to raise money for those affected by the drought, arriving in England for a visit on January 23, 1931.
It was evident to the American public that things needed to change. In the next Presidential election in 1932, the people spoke loud and clear: Herbert Hoover lost to Franklin D. Roosevelt by a landslide. Under FDR, the government stepped in to provide unprecedented help to a nation that was facing an unprecedented struggle. If local and state authorities nor private charities could manage, it was up to the federal government to step in. And step in it did. In order to revitalize the American economy, FDR implemented his New Deal.
FDR's New Deal was a moment where the public's expectation of the federal government changed. In an urgent time for action on a national scale, the Federal Government stepped in (albeit, with much debate).
One such measure was the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933. Farmers were paid to leave fields unplanted, and even to destroy certain surpluses in livestock and crops, in hopes that it would avoid price inflation. With the AAA, cotton production was decreased, and soybeans were introduced, which were a cheaper and more environmentally friendly crop. But finally, tenant farmers and sharecroppers did not reap long-term benefits of the AAA.
With the New Deal, infrastructure was also heavily expanded: railroads, power lines, and electricity made it possible to streamline the distribution of new, fortified foods. Farmers could also ensure their crops would be sold and distributed, and in return, out-of-season foods like oranges, as well as convenience foods like canned and frozen products were more available. This was the beginning of public education about nutrition, which was seen as a primary goal of eating (not taste or flavor). (Side note: With America's first fortified foods like canned soups, canned tuna and meat, and dairy products came nutrition education, which focused heavily on stretching meals and preparing economical food. "Ethnic" and spicy foods were considered stimulants that triggered hunger, which were thus bad for one's digestion and overall health, and discouraged.)
The emotional and physical toll of dealing with a crippling force that is totally outside of your power, which is being fumbled and poorly managed, leaving you forgotten in the mix... Sound familiar?
The coronavirus pandemic is not only a health crisis, but it has also exacerbated other underlying issues in the United States--food insecurity being just one of those issues. Whether it's a box of seeds to plant during a drought, or one measly stimulus check when you're facing eviction, it represents an utter kick in the teeth.
As we saw with the food riot in England, change often starts small, then gains momentum, but this strategy doesn't seem to hold up in the long term. 90 years later, residents of Arkansas still struggle with food insecurity. Today, the state has the second-highest rate of food insecurity in the United States. The Arkansas Food Bank reports that 1 in 5 Arkansans struggle to provide enough food for their family, and those with children are even worse off; 23.6% of children in Arkansas have limited access to enough food. With lockdowns and job losses, the problem of hunger is compounded with the pressure to meet the cost of basic needs like utilities, rent, gas, and food.
Through the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, in the spring of 2020 the USDA established the Farmers to Families Food Box initiative. The USDA purchases food like fresh produce, dairy and milk from producers and farmers, and distributors package the food into family-size boxes, which then are transported to food banks, food pantries, and nonprofits that offer help to families in need. The program has just been approved for a fifth round, worth 1.5 billion dollars, which was announced in January 2021, with deliveries scheduled to go out between late January and the end of April. Despite this, though, it is clear that demand is swiftly surpassing supply.
While federal programs help, they do not meet the entire need: food banks and food pantries are essential to bridge the gap. Feeding America is a United States-based nonprofit organization, which ties together a network of local food banks that serve communities around the country. It is the largest domestic hunger-relief organization, which relies on donations, staff, and volunteers. Food banks are under enormous pressure to keep up with a 60% increase in demand. Lines can be prohibitively long at food banks: in some places, the line can be more than a thousand people deep, and others face hours-long wait times.
Facing no other alternative, some are resorting to shoplifting staples like meat, bread, rice, pasta, and baby formula. Shoplifting is considered a "low-impact crime," but is it not inhumane to criminalize hunger and desperation? Especially considering that we live in a world that produces a surplus of food which is unequally available, a world in which corporate entities like Amazon have raked in money hand over fist during the pandemic.
For the average Joe, the system is structured in such a way that you can do everything in your power to provide for yourself and your family, and it still might not be enough to get by.
While waiting for state and federal entities to get their act together, local communities have stepped in to relieve some of the burden. Today, we see Gofundmes asking for relief in managing with living costs, medical costs, and funeral arrangements. Community fridges are maintained by volunteers, and stocked with fresh produce and home-cooked food. While it cannot, nor should it, replace larger coordinated relief efforts, it can also be a moment to think about how our food system functions, and how it should function better for all people.
My essay today focuses on hunger in the United States, but it is not with the intention to eclipse the dire problem of hunger on a global scale. Some 3 dozen countries are on the brink of famine conditions. The United Nations World Food Program says it needs 5 billion dollars in 2021 just to avert famine, and another 10 billion to be able to realize other aid programs, including those to feed malnourished children. Hunger is an international crisis, further compounded by the coronavirus pandemic.
In the article "A Political Economy of the Food Riot," Raj Patel and Philip McMichael identify key factors that lead to conditions in which a food riot occurs: it's not only a question of if (or when) there isn't enough food, but also when there is the perception of injustice.
First, there is a gap between expectation (that, for example, you should be able to feed your family by working hard) and reality (that there is either no food to be bought, or you can't afford the food that is available). Second, there are a select few that are not only insulated from hardship, but are profiting from it and free to continue their lives of conspicuous consumption, and there is no way for the public's voice to be heard. Thus, the perception of unfairness: when the distribution of hardship has been unevenly doled out. A food riot occurs when there has been a food system breakdown.
The same is as true today as it was in 1931: those who participate in food riots are the working poor, laborers, and the unemployed.
What else could the tenant farmers of England have done? Organizing and demanding aid was the only form of expression they had at their disposition. According to Patel and McMichael, food riots are inherently political. When those who have been disenfranchised by the system seek justice, it is clear that that system needs to change. Of course, just because people demand change, doesn't mean it will happen. We live in a world run by agribusiness.
In today's world, in which Bretton Woods instutions (the International Monetary Fund and World Bank) have immense influence over the global food economy, the "free market" landscape has become much more complex. But modern food riots, as well as the food riot in England, are preceded by those same conditions.
In their article, Patel and McMichael discuss food sovereignty as a space where the disenfranchised may take back their power.
As an alternative to global food systems that prioritize corporate gains over human interests, the Vía Campesina movement, founded in 1993, presented its political vision of food sovereignty at the 1996 World Food Summit. It is an international movement which is rooted in the idea that people have a right to food sovereignty, which defends the rights of, and advocates for, farmers and peasants, or those who work the soil, including women, the Indigenous, rural populations, and small-scale farmers. Food sovereignty seeks to reject the agribusiness approach to agriculture, which directly harms small-scale and rural famers, by implementing initiatives like protecting seeds and promoting agroecology.
In the United States, we see Indigenous organizations that work to cultivate more ethical, healthier food systems that respect tribal sovereignty, like the Native American Agriculture Fund (NAAF), the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance (NAFSA), and the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative (IFAI), which is based at the University of Arkansas.
One example of food sovereignty in practice is in the Quapaw Nation in northeastern Oklahoma, whom I mentioned at the beginning of this essay. The tribe have pushed for agricultural initiatives to ensure food sovereignty and food security on tribal land by establishing a self-sufficient food system. There are 2,000 acres of crops, greenhouses, a coffee roasting facility, cattle and goats, and the first USDA-inspected meat processing plant on tribal territory that is owned and operated by a Native American tribe. The Quapaw Nation has maintained a relationship with Missouri State University, offering learning opportunities, and has been active in sharing knowledge with others who share the same vision.
Through local action and community mobilization, the people of England, Arkansas were able to effect local change, and influence a change in how Americans view the role of the federal government in times of crisis. Historical precedent shows us that for many people, community solidarity means the difference between life and death. The more we know about the past, the better we can understand where we are now, and envision a better future. We know what we don't want to live with, and we want to imagine something more humane.
Today, while many struggle during this pandemic, local initiatives are keeping people afloat until larger-scale aid programs reach the people who need it. Perhaps it is through communities that we can not only find short-term relief, but also develop a more ethical long-term vision of food security, and hopefully, move toward food sovereignty.
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