On March 27, 2015, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) issued a press release about a new campaign against hunger. It announced a partnership with the Tyson Foods Corporation and the Roadrunner Food Bank in Albuquerque, New Mexico to provide more proteins to Native American and Mexican American children. Neglecting commercial interest of the Tyson Food Corporation, the press release describes the campaign as neither an act of charity nor a political protest but as an educational act: eating right as an issue of self-advancement.

Geraint Rowland, Up The Stairs, CC BY-NC 2.0

Why feeding hungry children is also a civil rights issue, the blog of the Roadrunner Food Bank reveals: In the section “Stories from the hungry” we get to read about Michael. Michael (whose ethnicity is not mentioned in the section) is an elementary school boy, who had “struggled to perform well, struggled to fit in, struggled to be a part of his elementary school classroom activities.” He came late to class and his night-shift working mother had no time to prepare him either dinner or breakfast. Becoming part of the roadrunner program “allowed Michael to transform” and now “he is on his way to good grades.” Now, he gets a better chance to qualify for scholarships, to attend college and to rise into a middle-class profession as he gets older.

This LULAC campaign in the spring of 2015 very much resembles campaigns by the same organization in 1933 to raise awareness to the hunger of Mexican American children in rural Texas. Back then, the LULAC activist Rodolfo de la Garza argued that children came to school “ill-fed and undernourished” and that would keep them from obtaining even a basic education. For him, it was a structural problem: wage discrimination in agricultural labor kept those children from getting a chance at individual advancement through education.

De la Garza’s statement was part of a larger public debate within the 1920s and 1930s Americanization movement to assimilate Mexican immigrants and reduce the effects of malnutrition. Public health advisors connected malnutrition to high rates of infant mortality and tuberculosis infections. California home teachers (hired to reach into immigrant homes) argued that inadequate school lunches would be a step into thieving for Mexican-origin boys: to still their hunger, they would steal the lunch from their better-off class mates. Also, working men would be more likely to start rioting if they did not get an adequate dinner at home.

Within a larger societal context, social experts argued that malnutrition caused low IQ scores of Mexican-origin children. This way, nutrition was tied to discourses on feeble-mindedness: IQ tests were believed to be a scientifically rational method of determining an individual’s worth for society. Low IQ scores were seen as a prediction of juvenile delinquency, alcoholism or sexual promiscuity in teenagers and adults.

Interwar debates on malnutrition did not necessarily address the quantity of food a family had, but the quality. A Mexican diet – described as consisting of folded tortillas, rice, beans and chilies – was considered less valuable than an American diet rich in fresh fruits and vitamins and but also in fats and carbohydrates. So, those programs were not just giving food to poor immigrations but teaching them how to eat right.

Within Americanization, food was much more than being a mere symbol of national loyalism. In all of these arguments, proper nutrition was considered one factor in curbing dangers to the modern society:  public health hazards, the draining of local community funds, political instability and high crime rates. Methods to combat all those threats took place under a population security dispositive that united bio-political discourses on hazards of infective diseases and genetic degradation with socio-economic discourses. This means that policy makers and the public assumed the connection between nutrition, poverty, disease and crime to be a scientifically proven fact. They adjusted social working practices accordingly in order to protect society from these problems rather than to help the poor. Therefore, food became a key component in the state’s and civil society’s interests in protecting its general population.

How does this all connect to a civil rights struggle of today? In today’s debate about hunger in the United States, minority children are again the focus of campaigns. Hunger is still connected to school performance and hunger is still about eating right rather than eating enough. However, the underlying motive of the campaign has changed: while the children in the 1930s were to be taught to eat right to protect the general society from disease and delinquency, nowadays little Michael needs help in eating right in order to become a better student and to better himself through education. Discourses on nutrition have shifted from marking “wrong” diets a threat to society to marking “right diets” a path to individual betterment. This way, eating right has become a key to civil partaking and social rise through education. This makes eating a central civil rights issue in contemporary America.

About the Author

Claudia Roesch


Claudia Roesch is a postdoc at the Department of History at Münster University, Germany. In 2014, she finished her PhD dissertation “Mexican Immigrant Families, Social Experts, Social Work and Changing Family Values in the 20th Century United States.” She is currently working on a project on “Reproductive decision-making in the United States and Germany, 1945-1990,” sponsored by the Gerda Henkel foundation.

» More articles by Claudia Roesch

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