‘Humans should at least be fed as well as prize hogs’

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Steve Bartlett
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Commission of Government decision didn’t sit well with people on dole

Newfoundland and Labrador’s poor and starving were once forced to eat a brown flour mix.

Steve Bartlett

In the early part of the 20th century, an incapacitating disease called beriberi was sickening the impoverished and taxing the health system.

To counter the condition, which resulted from vitamin deficiency, the Commission of Government made it mandatory in 1934 for those on public relief to eat brown flour.

Many hated the stuff, calling it dogs’ food, cattle feed, and dole flour. Some simply wouldn’t touch it.

“The average Newfoundland fisherman would rather eat white bread and tea and die happily of beriberi than eat whole wheat bread and avoid it,” a doctor in Fogo wrote.

This information comes from a 1998 paper, “Brown Flour and Beriberi: The Politics of Dietary and Health Reform in Newfoundland in the first half of the Twentieth Century.” It was written by James Overton, then a Memorial University sociology professor, and published in “Newfoundland Studies 14.”

The article was forwarded this way after a column was written on this province’s connection to food tests on aboriginals across Canada between 1942 and 1952.

The experiments generated national headlines and sparked outrage this summer after Ian Mosby, a nutritional historian at Guelph University, released a paper detailing how scientists and federal departments conducted nutritional research at some residential schools and native reserves without consent.

The local link to the testing was the consumption of “Newfoundland flour mix” at St. Mary’s residential school in Kenora, Ont. The mix provided no obvious benefits to the students and rates of iron deficiency (anemia) at the school skyrocketed.

The column on the Newfoundland connection generated calls from people who remember when our poor were forced to eat a flour mix against their will.

One caller spoke of his parents’ lasting disapproval of the Commission’s policy and the brown flour, and how they felt like guinea pigs.

Such sentiment comes across loud and clear in Overton’s paper. The article explains how beriberi was a major health issue among Newfoundland’s poor, many of whom existed on bread and tea for parts of the year.

The problem intensified when the Great Depression hit and the value of salt fish plummeted.

In October 1934, according to Overton, it was announced a “special brand and quality of flour to be used for relief purposes throughout the country during the winter of 1934-35 and this flour alone was to be used by people on relief.”

There had been calls from doctors for such a measure.

Merchants protested the move because the Commission bought its brown flour from an English miller.

As well, newspapers published numerous stories questioning the flour’s health benefits.

However, Overton writes, “The strongest opposition to dole flour came from those on relief. ... One representative of the unemployed argued that humans should at least be fed as well as prize hogs and that on these grounds an appeal might be made on behalf of the unemployed to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.”

Dole recipients were also angered about the meagre rations and government’s control over them.

Overton notes the commissioner responsible was described as “the most significant starvationist that ever existed.”

To no surprise, the poor protested, and eventually, they got some control back.

Ultimately, the brown flour appears to have helped some but it did not stop beriberi in Newfoundland.

Overton thinks it “represented a least cost, limited, and in many ways, inadequate way of dealing with dietary deficiencies.” He argues the re-emergence of dietary diseases, including beriberi, in the 1940s is an indication the Commission did not properly deal with poverty and poor diet in ’30s.

The idea of reintroducing brown flour was bandied about in the ’40s, but a nutrition council formed by the Newfoundland Medical Association opted for enriched white flour.

It’s unknown which flour mix — the brown or the enriched — was given to the students at St. Mary’s residential school as part of those federal tests.

But it’s obvious we’ve come a long, long way in terms of population health, nutrition, and governance.

Seriously, modern-day decision-makers would never get away with telling people they had to eat something.

And that can only be viewed as a positive thing.

 

Email Steve Bartlett at sbartlett@thetelegram.com. On Twitter, he’s @TelegramSteve

Organizations: Commission of Government, Health Reform, Guelph University Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Newfoundland Medical Association

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Fogo, Canada Kenora

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  • Nicole
    September 17, 2013 - 11:25

    I understand that we had very little nutritional knowledge all those years ago.....What i do not understand is why when we now have so much knowledge about nutrition that the Food Bank in St.John's gives out food that has as much nutritional value as a bag of cardboard.......While everybody is concerned about what occurred in our history 100 years ago children are going hungry in my community.....