The economic and cultural transformations unleashed by rapid industrialization in the late nineteenth century created glaring social inequities that brought unprecedented public attention to the plight of the urban poor. Hunger — as both an urgent moral crisis and a tangible manifestation of inequity — came to play a central role in political debates and inspired new forms of charity, reform, and social assistance. 

Between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of World War I, the United States went through profound economic, social, and cultural transformations. What emerged was both a new class of ultra-wealthy industrialists with tremendous political, social, and economic power, and an increasingly large population of disenfranchised workers struggling to get by, largely in racially-segregated urban neighborhoods. By the turn of the twentieth century, the disparities between these worlds prompted new public attention to the plight of the poor and new social and political debates in which hunger played a central role. 

Recent immigrants and workers of color advanced solutions to hunger and new modes of collective action to address the crisis. Meanwhile, middle-class reformers (mostly white women) introduced new forms of social assistance in the form of “home economics,” often trying to change the behaviors of poor people. In combination, these efforts elevated the significance of hunger in the public consciousness, resulting in some of the first federal government programs to assist the urban poor and alleviate hunger.