By David Kurlander

In the lead-up to Thanksgiving, White House rhetoric focused on the importance of receiving COVID-19 vaccinations before celebrating. “Get vaccinated and you can enjoy the holidays very easily,” Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN in advance of the holiday. Last week’s Now & Then episode, “Thanksgiving Wars,” focused on how Thanksgiving has often served as a moment of reckoning. “When we think about a national Thanksgiving, there is this umbrella of what the nation means,” Heather Cox Richardson said. During President Nixon’s first term, a Thanksgiving-tied promise to feed hungry American children became a broad referendum on nutrition, inequality, and government responsibility.

On May 6th, 1969, President Richard Nixon offered a dramatic message to Congress about the nation’s hunger problem. He pledged to protect and expand food stamp programs and floated an idea to create a new agency called the Food and Nutrition Service. “The moment is at hand to put an end to hunger in America itself. For all time,” Nixon wrote. “It is a moment to act with vigor; it is a moment to be recalled with pride.” 

The following month, on June 11th, Nixon appointed Harvard nutritionist Dr. Jean Mayer to serve as the White House Special Consultant on Nutrition. A native Parisian, the 48-year-old Mayer was a French resistance fighter during World War II who escaped from a Nazi POW camp by shooting his sentry. He became a vaunted Harvard nutritionist, and went on to serve in later years as an influential President of Tufts University. Before his appointment, Mayer was also Chair of the non-profit Council on Hunger and Malnutrition in the U.S., which had helped push the ball on nutrition issues during the Johnson administration. 

Nixon empowered Mayer with organizing a White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health, to be held in early December 1969. “Its conclusions and its goals will not be neatly bound and placed on a library shelf and forgotten. They will be the basis for action by this administration and the beginning of a national commitment,” Nixon promised in his statement announcing Mayer’s hiring.

Mayer quickly ruffled feathers in Washington. In August, he became embroiled in a congressional debate over food stamps, accusing the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Texas Democrat William R. Poage, of “playing politics with the health of the nation” when Poage held up a food stamp reform bill. “They are willing to trade off food stamps for tobacco and cotton,” Mayer said of Poage and his allies.

Amid these squabbles, Mayer orchestrated a 2,700-attendee conference. Mayer struggled to cobble together $700,000 from the Ford, Rockefeller, and Kellogg Foundations to fund the event. He received only $125,000 in federal funding from the Departments of Agriculture and Health, Education, and Wellness.

Initially, Mayer invited South Dakota Democratic Senator George McGovern, the Chair of the Senate Select Committee on Hunger & Human Needs, to deliver the keynote speech for the conference, immediately following Nixon’s own opening remarks. After receiving criticism from the White House over his decision to so highlight a potential 1972 presidential opponent, Mayer withdrew the Senator’s invite. Mayer grumbled to a Capitol Hill ally that Nixon was “paranoid” about McGovern.

In the lead-up to the conference, Mayer waded into a war of words with his former protégé, the 32-year-old legal scholar John T. Kramer, who Mayer had handpicked to serve as Executive Director of the Council on Hunger and Malnutrition. 

 The idealistic Kramer argued that Mayer had been quickly poisoned by the conservatism of the Nixon administration. “Put down the dangerous potion of professionalism and remain Dr. Mayer, not Mr. Hyde,” Kramer wrote to Mayer on Halloween 1969. Kramer told the New York Times that Mayer was “the classic example of a man swallowed by an institution” and that he was “an arrogant authoritarian.” 

Mayer also battled with progressive groups who argued that his allocation of 400 invites to impoverished Americans set up the conference to focus too much on elitist perspectives. Mayer defended his decision: “Somebody said we should have 1,700 poor. The important thing is to know their plight and act on it. Four hundred articulate poor can tell us. They will not be silenced.” 

“Thanksgiving…and 15 Million Hungry,” read a Boston Globe headline on Thursday, November 27th, 1969, the week before the conference. “Some 200 million Americans will sit down today to bountiful Thanksgiving tables. Some, but not all.”

 The conference opened on December 2nd, 1969 at the Sheraton-Park Hotel in Washington. 26 panels and eight distinct task forces debated health surveillance, corporate food responsibility, new food production technologies, and—most pointedly—the role of the government in securing food access for American citizens. 

Ralph D. Abernathy, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s close ally at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, gave a stirring speech, while left-wing student groups and massive food conglomerate CEOs passionately debated intricate policy points. At the end of the conference, Mayer told reporters that a bishop who attended said that the event was “the closest thing he had ever seen to a mass religious experience and a mass conversion.” 

On Christmas Eve, 1969, Mayer presented Nixon with 1,800 recommendations from the conference. The suggestions included an early call for a universal basic income of $5,500 for all American families and the immediate declaration of a national hunger emergency. Perhaps the most universal proposal, however, was the expansion of school lunch programs. During his meeting with Mayer, Nixon immediately agreed to revise regulations to allow private food service companies to provide packaged lunches to public schools to help meet the need. 

After the meeting, Mayer—claiming that he was speaking directly for the President—straight-up pledged that the administration would secure free or low-cost school lunches for every hungry American child—some 6.6 million kids—by Thanksgiving 1970. 

“It will cost what it will cost,” Mayer said. Even McGovern was excited. “I believe the Nixon administration’s efforts in food assistance constitute its most important domestic achievement in 1969,” he told the New York Times on Christmas Day.

 Nixon appeared willing to play ball to keep his Thanksgiving pledge. In May 1970, the President signed amendments to the two most important federal pieces of child hunger legislation, the original 1946 National School Lunch Act and the Johnson administration’s 1966 Child Nutrition Act, ultimately upping federal funding for youth nutrition programs to $1 billion per year, a massive increase from the $300 million allocation in 1967. “It will assure that every child from a family whose income falls below the poverty level will get a free or reduced-price lunch,” Nixon declared during the signing ceremony

As Thanksgiving 1970 approached, however, administration critics argued that only about two-thirds of America’s hungry youth—around 4.4 million children—were receiving lunch support. The Pittsburgh Post headline read “Turkey Day Shame: Free School Lunches: Many Still Go Hungry.” 

 An Associated Press study released just before Thanksgiving explained the local factors that contributed to the failed pledge. In the South, school districts often only offered free lunches in all-Black schools to discourage Black families from transferring their children to better-funded, predominately white institutions. School districts throughout the country simply failed to inform parents of free lunch programs. Other districts instituted an arbitrary quota system or made children work to receive their lunches. 

The study singled out Las Vegas, where only half of the city’s public schools served any kind of lunch, and Boston, where 667 free lunches were given daily for the city’s 28,585 children from welfare-receiving families, as particular offenders. 

White House Press Secretary Ron Ziegler defended the administration’s efforts, arguing that the first-quarter 1971 figures would vindicate Nixon. Richard Lyng, Nixon’s Assistant Secretary of Agriculture, acknowledged that the administration had fallen slightly short of its goal, but put the number of children receiving free lunches closer to 5.3 million and echoed Ziegler’s assertions that forthcoming data would push the numbers up. “We will come very close to our Thanksgiving goal,” he promised.  

 Meanwhile, McGovern castigated Nixon & Co. for their failure, offering his own Thanksgiving Day statement: “A solemn pledge by the administration has turned out to be 3 percent food and 97 percent promise,” he wrote, adding that the shortfall was “a bitter lesson in the fumbling process of America’s government for millions of her school children.”

The Thanksgiving disappointment subsided in 1972, as implementation of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) began to push forward some of the conference’s fundamental goals. Even as Nixon fell, Mayer remained a vocal force for food access reform, writing a syndicated column, serving on President Ford’s consumer advisory council, and pushing public health and nutrition programs during his much-celebrated tenure at Tufts.  

The fleeting tumult over Nixon’s Thanksgiving pledge, however, signals the tangled way that national holidays become entwined with pressing priorities, whether food security or vaccinations. As COVID-19 continues to complicate our holidays, the rancor and promise of Thanksgiving 1970 bears remembering. 

 For more on federal nutrition policy in the Nixon era, read Susan Levine’s 2008 School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America’s Favorite Welfare Program.

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