Lange’s photographs of Thompson ran in The San Francisco News shortly afterward. The public reaction to the image of an attractive mother and her daughters was immediate: letters of concern, calls to action, donations. The government assembled 20,000 pounds of emergency food, but by the time it was shipped to that particular migrant camp, the woman had already packed up her seven hungry children and pressed on. The image, which eventually came to be titled “Migrant Mother,” circulated widely and increased popular support for the New Deal programs that evolved into what remains of our social safety net today. Until 1978, her name — and that she was of Cherokee descent — remained unknown.
Our treatment of hunger as an emergency, rather than a symptom of systemic inequities, has long informed our response to it, and as a result, government programs have been designed to alleviate each peak rather than to address the factors that produce them. “Hunger becoming public is the start of a struggle, but it’s only the beginning of what’s required for change,” says Laurie B. Green, an associate professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, whose research looks at the moment in the 1960s when public health commissions, politicians and the media “discovered” hunger.
The severing of hunger from its socioeconomic context minimized the relationship between the restructuring of land, labor and industrial farming and its effect on diets and access to healthful food. Federal surplus-commodity programs grew out of the Great Depression, providing hungry people with leftover staples like flour, rice and lard. But their priority was to subsidize white farmers; the starchy diet did little to alleviate malnutrition. In the early 1960s, some areas began to offer food stamps instead. But because the coupons needed to be purchased every month, and values were set by local counties, they were inaccessible to the poorest — especially Southern Black residents — who were now unable to get any food at all. Activists like Fannie Lou Hamer organized against the program. The purchase requirement remained in place until 1977.
The first food bank opened in 1967. That December, Look magazine published photographs by Al Clayton, part of an exposé about a destitute family living in a windowless shack on no more than “coffee, flour and an inch of rice in a cellophane bag.” The next year, a CBS documentary, “Hunger in America,” featured a baby in an American hospital crib dying of starvation onscreen. Public pressure led to legislation that improved access to food stamps and created the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) in 1972.