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The First Step Toward Fitness

The First Step Toward Fitness

by PAUL V. McNUTT, An Article in Survey Graphic, July, 1941Paul V. McNutt, October, 1941[View Image]
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Paul V. McNutt, October, 1941

Editor’s Note: Paul Vories McNutt (July 19, 1891 – March 24, 1955) was an American politician who served as the 34th Governor of Indiana during the Great Depression, high commissioner to the Philippines, administrator of the Federal Security Agency, chairman of the War Manpower Commission and ambassador to the Philippines.

When America began to recover from the Great Depression, it began to take stock of its human resources. We found that a large minority of our population did not get enough to eat. These people who did not get enough to at were below par in health. They were below par in initiative and alertness.

When there was not any pinch, except the pinch of poverty and the pinch of ever tightening belts—when America’s industrial machine was running in a surplus labor market, nobody needed these men—nobody, that is, except their families. Efforts to do something about them then were regarded as a kind of economic heresy. The Works Progress Administration, the Farm Security Administration, the National Youth Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and other organizations that directed their attention to these groups were under constant attack.

The problem is not wholly gone. When a Texas County ran a report that “20 percent of the deaths in this county in 1938 were hastened by lack of sufficient amount and balanced diets,” the job is not done. Texas certainly is not alone. It simply happens to have faced its facts a little more squarely.

Thousands of families live on sow belly and corn. Other thousands live on tortillas and beans. Most of these should grow kitchen gardens, some say. But some of the folks who urge that most loudly are also most critical of the government expenditures for the aid and educational programs which are intended to bring about that result. And it must not be forgotten that there are other thousands—without a square foot of real estate within five miles of their homes in which they could put a spade—who cannot buy meal-balancing foods at the prices they would have to pay.

So, distribution is one of our problems. I would not want any nutritionist to feel complacent because the problem is recognized. I would not want any health officer to feel smug because he has set his public health nurses to advising welfare clients that what they needed were more green vegetables, fresh fruits, premium price flour, and vitamin tablets. “Buy Better Food” is not a very helpful slogan for folks who cannot afford anything but the cheapest.

I would not want any representative of the food industry to feel satisfied until the American system of distribution—with the skill and leadership that only the food distribution industries are now equipped to offer us—can work out a pattern of distribution that reaches everybody.

Some industrial policies aim to skim off the cream of a market. Under such a policy, advertising is aimed at the 30 percent of the market that has the most money to spend. The result may be a residual market that cannot be developed economically by anybody. “Cream-separator distribution” that selects only adequate income groups may pay money dividends. But it can be a bottleneck to national health.

We know that a lot of people who are regarded as poor prospects for jobs need food. They are set down in personnel records as lazy or dumb, or marked as “slow to adjust to job situations.” What is really wrong with them is that they are hungry.

Let us call that hollow hunger. Not all these people are literally “hollow.” One may fill up on the wrong things because one is too poor to obtain better food.

Other people, we have found, are filling up on the wrong things because they do not know any better. It may be just habit, a sweet tooth and a big rush that leads many a city office worker to lunch day after day on soda pop, chocolate bars, and sundaes. Let us call that hidden hunger, as distinguished from the slow starvation of poverty.

Recent discoveries indicate that some dietary deficiencies may show up in disorders we have been pleased to call “mental.” Stamina, intelligence, judgment, will, stability—all these may have their roots in unbalanced diets and can be treated through the use of vitamins.

There are many dramatic accounts of modern nutrition in action. For example, a few years ago the Tennessee Valley Authority went back forty miles behind Norris Dam to the little town of Wilder, a ghost town, where several hundred stranded miners’ families were barely subsisting. The men there were bad actors, unreliable, trouble-makers, TVA officials were told. But the TVA officials signed up forty men, put them on hard jobs with regular pay and regular food. Those men became some of the best employees TVA had. In the dining halls at Norris Dam a man could eat all he wanted for a quarter. Five or six helpings were not uncommon. After awhile that stopped. The men had caught up with their food needs.

Many great industrial concerns find it good business to provide adequate and properly selected food for their employees. Whether such food is free, or available at cost or nominal prices, it pays industrial dividends.

Recently, I was told that a western trucking company had actually achieved a reduction of its night accident rate by providing all its driver crews with bags of raw carrots at the beginning of every trip. Somebody had advised them of the effect of Vitamin A on the eyesight.

Today, we have begun to enrich our flour. But it is important that the consumer is not led to believe that enrichment makes bread a substitute for other necessary foods.

Certainly the food industries have real problems to face: pressures for over selective distribution, overemphasis on refinements, the exuberance of competitive copywriters. On the other hand the experts—the doctors, nutritionists, educators, home economists, and career consumers—also have forgotten a point the advertisers remember. The experts have too often forgotten that good food is fun.

Something frequently happens to good food when its selection is distilled through the coils of an expert. It loses its gastronomic gusto. To my mind, for example, an Indiana farm dinner, steaming on the kitchen table, constitutes about the best concatenation of vitamins ever strung together;

That kind of old-fashioned country dinner contains a vitamin you will not find in a laboratory—the psychological vitamin of human satisfaction. I’ll name it Vitamin Z, for Zest, so the doctors can run theirs consecutively.

Indiana food has been famous for a long time. In the days before we started to export it, Hoosiers were the tallest civilized men in the world. Indiana food had what it took. And not the least of its virtues was Vitamin Z. Every first-rate dinner the world has ever seen—first-rate in rounded gastronomic satisfaction—has had those things. The first-rate Italian dinner isn’t spaghetti and meat balls. That’s just a perversion which arises from the fact that our industrialized city Italian workers haven’t been able to afford the abundant fruits and vegetables of their traditional diet. The good Italian dinner was not only fun—it was full of vitamins. Tortillas and beans are not any nation’s traditional food. They are only a remnant poor folks can still afford.

A recent Department of Agriculture study showed that if all the families getting less than $100 a month had been able overnight to increase their income to that level, the result would be a two-billion-dollar increase in food expenditures every year. Good food is good business.

If, with the help of the advertisers and the educators, the story public health and medicine have to tell could be put into such language that the great body of American people could be persuaded, America’s whole destiny would certainly be more dynamic.

It is up to us to create a policy which will enable the housewife to find her way through a chaos of calories, salts and minerals, acids and alkalis and vitamins. It must be a policy which gives us a firm and acceptable basis for action.

There are, to be sure, administrative relationships with these problems. To cite an example: One of the requirements for enriched flour will be riboflavin. But we find that there is not now the productive capacity necessary to produce the riboflavin necessary for such enrichment. Two factors complicate this picture: the kinds of construction necessary will involve negotiation as to priorities with the Office of Production Management; we are thus not immediately in a position to know how rapidly the new facilities could be built. The amount of riboflavin and other vitamins available for the millers may depend to some extent on the requirements of the British who, with restricted diets, may have a more urgent need than others.

The industries, which have so completely cooperated with this program, can feel assured, however, that the solution will not be one which penalizes them for events outside their control. All such measures constitute an advance in the very responsibilities of government.

The Federal Security Administration, and I believe every other government agency, is ready to act. As President Roosevelt wrote to me recently:

During these days of stress the health problems of the military and civilian population are inseparable. Total defense demands manpower. The full energy of every American is necessary. Medical authorities recognize completely that efficiency and stamina depend on proper food. Fighting men of our armed forces, workers in industry, the families of these workers, every man and woman in America, must have nourishing food. If people are undernourished, they cannot be efficient in producing what we need in our unified drive for dynamic strength…. The Department of Agriculture has estimated that many millions of men, women, and children do not get the foods which science considers essential. We do not lack and we will not lack the means of producing food in abundance and variety. Our task is to translate this abundance into reality for every American family.

Now, in the pinch of defense, we are actually taking stock of our manpower. As the President has said, America needs her men and women, every one of them. We know that we cannot permit an underfed people at any income level if the nation is to be truly strong. Our human beings are as much worth saving as our forests, mines, streams, and soil. Today we recognize that the ways of conserving our men and women are as susceptible to scientific determination as our dealings with inanimate national resources. This knowledge must lead to action.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): McNutt, P.V. (1941). The first step toward fitness. Survey Graphic, 30(7), 379. Retrieved [date accessed] from /eras/first-step-toward-fitness/.

Source: New Deal Network, (April 11, 2014)

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