Graves: This is not the Great Depression redux


Back when I taught American history — an event which is beginning to qualify as part of history itself — I loved covering the Great Depression. It was an event so foreign to me and my students yet so recent in our country’s experience that it felt like it had something to tell us. It was a time filled with wonderful and, yes, horrifying stories. And because I loved having students meet with people, actual witnesses of historical events or times, the Great Depression proved to be a treasure trove. All they had to do was turn to their grandparents or, absent that resource due to mortality or relative youth, any number of the senior set in their community. The students would then write up their interviews and — voila! — they became instant historians.

The Great Depression was also one of the oldest historical events in America for which some video was available. Young people thrive on video, and so offering a video experience of the Great Depression often awakened even the sleepiest high school junior to the fact that something interesting might actually find its way into a history lesson.

One of my personal favorites, still available on-line naturally, is the moving image of a buxom woman in a San Francisco soup kitchen ladling soup into bowls, both arms a-swinging. The recipients move on both sides of her and the line doesn’t even slow down as an empty bowl becomes a full one while nary a drop is spilt. It is 1931 and an army of unemployed, through no fault of their own, has suddenly found itself without sustenance. Across the top of her waist band holding a snowy apron in place are the words, “White Angel.”

I have been repeatedly reminded of this image these days whenever I visit one of the school kitchens. Don’t misunderstand. We are not in a repeat of the Great Depression. Our closures are temporary and the economy, I strongly believe, will come roaring back to life as soon as it is again unleashed. During the Great Depression, the idling of the economy was not artificial in the sense that it is today and everybody wanted it to come roaring back. It just, rather impolitely, declined to do so.

Additionally, the safety net is much stronger, wider, and deeper than it was back then. The government has taken a strong interventionist role today while measures back then were slow in coming and rather timid, at least in comparison to today when, astonishingly, both Republicans and Democrats launched $2.2 trillion in spending in a fit of bipartisanship most thought was something, itself, lost to history.


So today’s economic and societal reversal is not a repeat of the Great Depression but, as Mark Twain is reputed to have said, “it does rhyme.” Thus, one can see afterimages, reminders, or reflections from 90 years ago showing themselves again today.

Thus, the Mitchell School District is not running a Depression-era soup kitchen and, while genuine, abject hunger was very much a reality in the ‘30s, it is only very rarely so today in our corner of America. But part of the reason for that is the federal funding for and the local operation of the school meals program, currently providing free meals to anyone who shows up at a school or a school bus or a rural drop-off point and is under the age of 18. Meals have not been ladled into bowls, typically, but they have been scooped into Styrofoam containers or assembled in plastic sacks and trundled into cardboard boxes for the 2020 version of that bowl. And while the funding has been necessary to the program the real energy behind the effort has been the masked, gloved cafeteria employees — sometimes school employees moved from a different program into the cafeteria for the duration — who have fired up the stoves, opened the coolers, created the assembly lines, and provided food not for ‘school lunch’ but for lunch and breakfast and meals. Not just during what should have been a regular school day but also into the weekends and even the holiday breaks. On April 9, the day before the Easter weekend, they placed more than 18,000 meals into the hands of community children, carrying them from that Thursday all the way through the following Monday.

That's the kind of number that would impress even an ambidextrous soup ladler. Truthfully, it has been an edifying thing to watch, a marvel of nutritional accomplishment. And it is not history. It is very much contemporary and is scheduled to continue for as long as necessary. When that necessity wanes or ends, only then it will become history. A time I not only look forward to but also one, I am certain, I will not soon forget.

Luke Hagen was promoted to editor of the Mitchell Republic in 2014. He has worked for the newspaper since 2008 and has covered sports, outdoors, education, features and breaking news. He can be reached at
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