As the spring of 1932 commenced, the Great Depression had Syracuse in its grips.
An estimated 25,000 to 30,000 people, making up more than 6,000 families, were struggling to put their next meal on the table.
(To give perspective to the size of the problem faced by the city and its welfare department, the population of Syracuse in the 1930 census was just over 209,000 people.)
City dieticians, nutritionists and government officials worked on a plan which walked a delicate balance between providing enough sustenance while not putting more strain on Syracuse’s budget.
“The aim of the whole project is to supply, at the lowest possible cost, every dependent of the department of welfare with wholesome and palatable food meeting the recognized dietary standard,” was how the Syracuse Journal described the problem on March 31, 1932.
Together they came up with the “nine-cent-a-day diet” for Syracuse’s poor, providing about 2,700 calories daily. In today’s money, that is about $1.89 in which to feed yourself.
The question many asked was could a person live on less than a dime a day.
Syracuse Mayor Rolland B. Marvin wanted to find out and volunteered to be among the first to try it out.
“I do not want to give to the people of the city a diet that I would not use,” he said. “I will note the effect the diet has on me and will be able to judge whether it is sufficient.”
For a week he adhered to the rules of what became known as the “Syracuse Diet,” often in front of news cameras and reporters.
Soon, households across the country wanted to know more about what became known as the “Syracuse diet.”
On the morning of April 21, 1932, newspaper reporters and photographers strode into Rolland B. Marvin’s dining room at 1050 Ackerman Avenue to watch the city’s mayor, and his family, have breakfast.
He drank a cup of coffee and the juice of one orange, and two slices of wheat toast, on which he spread apple butter, instead of “oleomargarine.” This, he said, was “permissible under the rules.”
Marvin’s children, Kathryn, 8, and Charles, 6, had a similar meal, only they drank milk. This, again, was “provided for under the rules.”
“Fortified” by this spartan meal, the mayor rushed for an 8:45 train to Albany.
When he boarded, a reporter asked what Marvin might have for lunch.
“I do not know,” he replied. “I shall wait until I sit down to the table and then consult my appetite. I like either salt pork or soup meat. It may be hard to choose.”
At Albany’s Hotel Van Eyck, Rolland Marvin had a simple lunch of four griddle cakes, stewed tomatoes and a glass of milk. Once again, reporters and photographers were there to capture it.
Technically, that glass of milk in Albany was not allowed, milk was reserved for Syracuse’s children, but it showed Marvin’s adherence to the diet.
“So far so good,” he told them. “I feel fine. Hungry? Not a bit.”
It was the third day of his week-long trial and to this point, Marvin said, he “had lost no weight.”
The day before, while at an Exchange Club luncheon in Binghamton, Marvin had only “a glass of water and a cigarette” for lunch; the tempting soup and broiled chicken being served certainly being against “the rules.”
Marvin’s diet drew a great deal of attention, and his office was inundated with letters from people across America, looking for help during the Depression.
“The publicity given the dietary experiments of Mayor Rolland B. Marvin has considerably increased the mail brought daily to his desk at City Hall,” the Herald noted on April 23, 1932.
“I would like a menu of the nine-cent diet plan,” wrote a woman from Fairchance, Pennsylvania. “We are a family of five adults and once child, living on a reduced scale, as only one is working. We are trying to keep out of debt.”
“My husband is included among the unemployed,” a Connecticut woman wrote. “I would be glad if you would mail me the menu your wife has used for your meals.”
Another called Marvin’s diet planning a “blessing to thousands of families.”
“I would be so glad to know more about your nine cents diet and hope you will furnish the information as to how to practice the idea for the question of food seemed vital,” Gertrude Bishop, of San Gabriel, California, wrote.
The mayor of Minneapolis wanted to know more about the “Syracuse diet” for his constituents.
(Once after Marvin had criticized Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “passing the buck” to New York cities for the high cost of the state’s government, FDR replied, “As usual, with regard to any remarks by the Mayor of Syracuse – no comment!”
“Perhaps,” columnist Fred Betts wrote, “Mr. Roosevelt is afraid that if he replied the Mayor would challenge him to go on that 9-cents-a-day diet.”)
Marvin tried to downplay his experiment.
“There were too many letters to be answered,” he said. “Most of the writers seem to think I have discovered a way that any family can cut its food cost to nine cents a day for each individual. That is not the case.”
(The city of Syracuse could buy “big lots” of food at a more reduced cost than a normal family could.)
There was some criticism.
A Utica woman suggested that Syracuse feed its poor on grass clippings.
“The plan might be adopted for the unemployed, Phebe Klein wrote, “thereby saving money and, at the same time, adding to their time for play and recreation.”
At a Communist party rally at Hanover Square on May Day, the nine-cent-a-day diet was savaged, one placard reading:
“Let the bosses live in nine cents a day; we demand unemployment insurance.”
When his week’s trial was over on April 27, 1932, Mayor Marvin said he had gained two pounds, four ounces.
“I am now convinced that it provides proper nourishment,” he wrote in a newspaper column for The Associated Press.
A week’s supply of food for a family included two cans of evaporated milk, six ounces of salt pork, 21-and-a-half ounces of soup beef, one can of salmon, and 12 ounces of navy beans. Packages also included peanut butter, carrots, potatoes, cabbage, macaroni, oatmeal, bread, three ounces of coffee, and more.
The diet was to be, the Herald reported, “adequate and attractive,” and provide a “reasonable variation” for the city’s poor.
On May 19, New York State’s Department of Health approved Syracuse’s plan.
That day, after pressure from local dairy farmers and a general distaste for margarine, natural butter was added to the diet.
Laundry and toilet soap were also added to weekly orders. A new “City Welfare Nutritionist,” Mary Buettner, would create menus and visit families who needed guidance.
It was an all an effort to steer Syracuse through the Depression.
“I have been trying to do my level best to direct a course that will save the city from bankruptcy and reasonably take care of the 30,000 men, women, and children now on the relief rolls,” Marvin said.
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