March 2021

The Fireside—News and Views from The Living New Deal

Beauty and Bread

Mural "Local Industries," Springdale, Arkansas Post Office

Mural "Local Industries," Springdale, Arkansas Post Office
By Natalie Smith Henry, 1940.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Soup kitchens and food banks made a comeback in the past year as Covid-19 wreaked havoc on the U.S. economy.  During the Great Depression, when hunger stalked the country, the New Deal enacted programs to feed those in need—programs that continue to offer a lifeline today. The New Deal recognized that— like food—beauty also provides nourishment. The WPA not only hired millions of workers to build the nation’s roads and bridges, it also employed struggling artists, writers, musicians, actors and architects to erect a cultural infrastructure—public art, art centers, museums, libraries, parks and gardens. The goal was not only to provide jobs but to bring beauty to Americans wherever they lived. The naturalist John Muir described beauty as a “hunger” shared by every person. “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread,” he wrote. America is hungry for both. 

In this Issue:

Why Not a Beauty New Deal?

Berkeley Rose Garden, Berkeley, California

Berkeley Rose Garden, Berkeley, California
Architect Bernard Maybeck designed the terraced garden. Constructed by hundreds of workers from the CWA and later, the WPA, the garden was dedicated in 1937.
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

Recently, progressive Democrats have proposed a Green New Deal, a massive transition to protect our planet from further damage from the juggernaut of climate change. It’s time to consider as well a Beauty New Deal to protect and restore America’s natural environment and enrich and deepen the quality of our lives.

There is an inherent human need for beauty and the vitality of creative expression. Beauty impacts all of life. Studies show that beautiful built surroundings and access to parks, nature and green space contribute to good health, social connection, altruism, equity, tolerance, reduced consumerism and increased sustainability.

While beauty’s private aspects are subject to the same unjust distribution as other private goods, beauty, as a public good, has equity as its larger dimension.

In the 1960s, amid antiwar and civil rights marches, members of Congress worked across the aisle, responding to President Lyndon Johnson’s warning that we were becoming “an ugly America” and needed to restore and protect a beautiful America for future generations.

“The Progress of the Negro Race,” 1938

“The Progress of the Negro Race,” 1938
A decorative frieze by Daniel Olney adorns the Langston Terrace Dwellings public housing complex in Washington, D.C.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Library of Congress

This led not only to expanding national, state and local parks and beautifying highways, but to beautifying urban America as well.

Encouraged by Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, Lady Bird Johnson led a broad “beautification” campaign, starting with the nation’s badly neglected capital, Washington D.C. and African American neighborhoods most deprived of natural beauty by institutional racism. The “beautification” initiative was among the most widely popular of Johnson’s Great Society.

Franklin Roosevelt’s original New Deal was multi-dimensional, not merely economic-material, but also green and beauty-oriented.

Robert Stanton Theater, King City, California

Robert Stanton Theater, King City, California
The high school auditorium, built in 1939 with WPA funding is embellished with sculpture by Joseph Jacinto Mora. The Art Modern-style building was designed by Robert Stanton.
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

With a major focus on environmental protection and restoration, New Deal programs hired artists, writers, photographers, actors, playwrights and musicians to take public art and performance to cities and s towns across America, while providing inspiration and income to hard-hit creatives. Earlier, encouraged by Theodore Roosevelt, the City Beautiful Movement that flourished during the 1890s and 1900s added parks and other public spaces to beautify American cities.

The importance of beauty has been largely neglected in public policy discussions of our times, but these bygone efforts provide a rich store of ideas to draw upon.




Lake Michigan Beach House

Lake Michigan Beach House
The CCC developed Michigan’s Ludington State Park, including its beautiful beach house, completed in 1935.
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

A Beauty New Deal should:

  • Provide greater public support for artists, writers, poets and performers by re-establishing the original New Deal’s WPA Arts programs
  • Educate students to appreciate, create and cultivate beauty in their communities
  • Preserve and promote natural beauty by expanding parks, wilderness areas and open spaces, while strengthening protections from commercial encroachment
  • Re-establish the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) for beautification and environmental restoration projects
  • Encourage use of property taxes for urban beautification, including planting millions of flowering and shade trees
  • Build new public squares
  • Support urban mini-farms and gardens
  • Provide “Equal Access to Beauty” through free summer camps for underserved children
  • Support “Renaissance Zones” using grants and tax incentives for beauty-led economic development in poor communities
  • Support repertory theatre and other performing arts in small towns and cities
  • Direct beautification funding to areas other than the established cultural centers, and finally,
  • Support colleges to culturally enrich the communities around them.

Even as the current struggles threaten to tear us apart, the “Politics of Beauty” can bring Americans together and closer to the America the Beautiful of which we can all be proud.

Jerome Segal was the 2020 presidential candidate of the Bread and Roses Party and is a University of Maryland philosopher. His running mate, John de Graaf, worked for many years in public television. He is making a film about former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall. Email John de Graaf

Making Ends Meat

Soup kitchen
Lining up for free food during the Great Depression.
Photo Credit: National Archives at College Park / Public domain

During the Great Depression soup kitchens opened across America to feed the hungry. People waited in “breadlines” that stretched for blocks. Some eighty years later, Americans are lining up for miles for free food. Food banks are overwhelmed by the demand.

The Great Depression affected nearly 60 million Americans–about half the population. Unemployment reached nearly 25 percent. A half million workers were jobless in Chicago, and nearly a million in New York City, where charities and churches served up some 85,000 daily to those in need.  

Eighty-two percent of farm families were classified as “impoverished.” One who endured the Great Depression in West Virginia recalled when a teacher told an inattentive student to go home and get some food. “I can’t,” the child replied. “It’s my sister’s turn to eat.”

Migrant agricultural worker’s family, 1936

Migrant agricultural worker’s family, 1936
Nipomo, California
Photo Credit: Photo by Dorothy Lange Courtesy, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

In “the land of plenty,” federal efforts to help those in need were extremely limited. Some families made do growing fruit and vegetables in their backyards. They also canned. They cooked with whatever ingredients were on hand. That might be peanut butter stuffed onions, a dandelion salad or “Hoover Stew,” a concoction of macaroni, canned tomatoes, hot dogs, canned corn and beans. For dessert—for those who could afford the luxury—there was vinegar pie, or mock apple pie—made with crushed Ritz crackers but no apples. There was even water pie.

When the pandemic arrived last year, online searches for Great Depression recipes spiked. (Many can be found on YouTube). Even before the pandemic struck, roughly 37 million people in the U.S. lacked consistent, predictable access to foods required for a healthy lifestyle. That number has risen to 54 million today. Twenty million are kids.

The nonprofit Feeding America reports that its food banks have seen an 83 percent increase in people in need of food assistance since the pandemic began.  

Food insecurity, 2020
Thousands line up at food banks across America.
Photo Credit:

Last year, visits to food banks nationwide increased by more than 50 percent, according to a CNN report.

In response to hunger brought on by the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt called for the formation of the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation. Established in 1933, the New Deal agency directed agricultural commodities from the open market—where prices were depressed by surplus farm products—to needy families.

One distributor described his first delivery of surplus salt pork to a down-and-out community: “Finally I sez it was a present from the government. A lot of ‘em – especially the old folks – broke down and cried. I guess all some of ‘em had to eat is potatoes and beans and bread, and not too much of any of that. Some said they hadn’t tasted meat for months.”

Between 1933 and 1935, the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation, later renamed the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), sent millions of tons of government food to every state in the nation. Michigan alone received 15 million pounds of pork, butter, potatoes, eggs, lard, breakfast cereal, beans, cheese and other food products.

Eat These Every Day, circa 1942

Eat These Every Day, circa 1942
Federal Art Project, NYC WPA War Services.
Photo Credit: Courtesy, Library of Congress

The federal government has stepped up food programs that began with New Deal. FERA today is the Emergency Food Assistance Program, part of the United States Food and Drug Administration (USDA).  It provides the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as “food stamps.” In 2019, before the pandemic, 38 million Americans—1 in 9—qualified for SNAP; 42 percent of these were working families unable to make ends meet.

Despite recently expanded government assistance such as extended unemployment benefits and stimulus checks, an estimated 30 million U.S. households face food insecurity. With a battered economy and worsening income inequality, America must do more to keep struggling families fed, housed and healthy…far more than salt pork, bologna casseroles and a plate of hobo beans.

Jonathan Shipley is a freelance writer based in Atlanta, Georgia. He's written for such publications as the Los Angeles Times, National Parks Magazine, and Seattle Magazine.