That people starve while food rots isn't rare. We've known about the effect for decades. If you aren't familiar with Amartya Sen, he won a Nobel Prize in part for his research into famines, pointing out their causes not only in food shortages but distribution. Quoting Wikipedia -- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amartya_Sen (sorry so long a quote but his work is fascinating and I'm interested to read other thoughts from this community )--
In 1981, Sen published Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (1981), a book in which he argued that famine occurs not only from a lack of food, but from inequalities built into mechanisms for distributing food. Sen also argued that the Bengal famine was caused by an urban economic boom that raised food prices, thereby causing millions of rural workers to starve to death when their wages did not keep up. However, this argument has recently been undermined by evidence suggesting significant decline in food availability in the Bengal Famine. This implies the curious irony that Sen had bought into precisely the excuse used by the War Cabinet to refuse aid to Bengal -- that hoarding, not a lack of food, was the famine's cause.
Sen's interest in famine stemmed from personal experience. As a nine-year-old boy, he witnessed the Bengal famine of 1943, in which three million people perished. This staggering loss of life was unnecessary, Sen later concluded. He presents data that there was an adequate food supply in Bengal at the time, but particular groups of people including rural landless labourers and urban service providers like haircutters did not have the monetary means to acquire food as its price rose rapidly due to factors that include British military acquisition, panic buying, hoarding, and price gouging, all connected to the war in the region. In Poverty and Famines, Sen revealed that in many cases of famine, food supplies were not significantly reduced. In Bengal, for example, food production, while down on the previous year, was higher than in previous non-famine years. Thus, Sen points to a number of social and economic factors, such as declining wages, unemployment, rising food prices, and poor food-distribution systems. These issues led to starvation among certain groups in society. His capabilities approach focuses on positive freedom, a person's actual ability to be or do something, rather than on negative freedom approaches, which are common in economics and simply focuses on non-interference. In the Bengal famine, rural laborers' negative freedom to buy food was not affected. However, they still starved because they were not positively free to do anything, they did not have the functioning of nourishment, nor the capability to escape morbidity.
Didn't a similar thing happen during the Great Depression? I thought FDR ordered livestock, etc, destroyed in order to keep their prices up. I'm sure lots of Americans were going hungry at that time, so the outrage must have been huge.
It lasted less than 6 months before they created the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation, which instead of creating artificial scarcity bought the stocks and distributed it (some 600 Million pounds of grain, cotton, and meat) to impoverished sectors across the US.
To the extent that there's a lot of slack in the economy, factories laying idle and so forth, more money will tend to result in more production rather than more inflation. Now there are always some sectors of the economy that aren't idle so more money will always result in at least a little inflation, but in the case of the Great Depression this was very little. And they were experiencing deflation at the time anyways, so more inflation would have gotten them closer to price stability.
Prices had been pegged very high due to the Ukraine famine in the 1920s, and global trade further collapsed due to Smoot Hawley ( which was immediately countered worldwide ). Redistributing excess produce for free can work well in the face of collapsing prices. It doesn't signal increased production and buffers people getting out of producing without completely destroying prices. Direct food subsidies continued well into the 1960 ( we called them "commodities", and if you were poor, you could get them from ... USDA offices? something like that). This was the predecessor to food stamps ( although it may have run in parallel ).
FDR did not pay the farmers as a way to get their vote. He already had their vote. Furthermore, allowing prices to fall would have done nothing for many of the victims of the Great Recession, as many of them did not have jobs and thus could not afford to pay for food no matter what it cost.
The Federal Surplus Relief Corporation was created for the sole purpose of maintaining America's agricultural output, which then and now, was the primary source of America's economic strength. Maintaining food production also meant that many of the associated farming jobs would remain intact, preventing the crisis for worsening.
The farming jobs supported many skilled industrial production jobs, especially for heavy equipment such as tractors. This would prove invaluable a decade later when the U.S. entered WWII and the factories began producing weapons and tanks. The factories already had plenty of trained workers ready to work the lines.
All of this is covered in most high school U.S. history courses.
That's partially correct. FDR wasn't just trying to buy farmers votes, he really did believe that high prices were good for the economy. He correctly realized that the deflation being experienced in the US was bad, but he thought that artificially increasing prices would fix things, but in reality people didn't have the money to pay the new, higher, prices and all of FDR's efforts to raise the prices of things (the NRA especially) just ended up making the depression worse.
Now, FDR did a lot of things and some of them worked pretty well. He'd touched off the fastest industrial expansion in US history a few months before he killed it with the NRA, for example. I'm not aware of any current economic school of thought that would endorse the idea that price supports actually helped with the depression. A Keynesian would say that you have to run a deficit to increase the aggregate demand, a Monetarist would say you need more money to increase aggregate demand, a Supply-Sider would say you can't help, a Socialist would say the state needs to take over the means of production, etc.
Now, I do have friends from states that rely on agricultural subsidies, and their high school history textbooks evidently did wax poetic about how awesome agricultural subsidies were, but that isn't in most American's high school educations.
Arms and weapons alone (one of the main perceived sources of "America's economic strength" abroad, along with intellectual property and others) make more than that (sources estimate between 1% and 4% of the US GDP).
Standing in line to receive 'free' food is not without opportunity cost, so it's not hard to keep the marginal cost of getting that food more expensive than the market price for anyone with the ability to actually pay for food.
I don't have a copy with me so I can't give you page numbers but there is a scene after they have arrived in California where some food (I think potatoes) is being dumped into the river and there is a long (several pages) discussion at the end of the book where Steinbeck says something to the effect that our superior science allowed us to grow so much food but our economic system doesn't allow us to us it to feed the people.