Year of Award


Document Type


Degree Type

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Name


Department or School/College

Department of History

Committee Chair

Kyle G. Volk

Commitee Members

Jody Pavilack, Jeff Wiltse, Robert Saldin, Stephen Porter


food, Near East Foundation, Near East Relief, Nelson Rockefeller, philanthropy, political economy


University of Montana


“The Politics of Abundance: American Philanthropy and the Political Economy of Food in the Twentieth Century” uses food aid as a lens to understand how philanthropy became a significant new force in the twentieth-century political economy, both in the US and in the projection of American power abroad. I argue that US-based international food philanthropy joined with the state and the full breadth of the American food industry to structure the political economy of food in the twentieth century and to export it globally, impacting how much of the world produces and consumes food. Voluntary agencies and foundations provided a gamut of international food aid from feeding programs to agricultural development. These philanthropic groups played a critical part in offloading American food surplus, stimulating markets, legitimizing processed foods, and exporting American food production methods overseas, all of which transformed the political economy of food globally over a relatively few short decades.

Food philanthropy accomplished this by engaging in and shaping the politics of the political economy of food at home and abroad. Through a highly politicized process to gain resources to feed the hungry abroad beginning after World War I, philanthropic groups became adept players in institutional, interest group, and interpersonal jockeying over influence in the food economy. These tax-subsidized organizations professionalized, marketed, networked, lobbied, and expanded in scale and scope to exert significant power over public policy. Through such political practices, food philanthropy forged itself into a geopolitical arm of American government and business. The state gained a new tool of statecraft that simultaneously supported US national security objectives, bolstered farm prices at home, and created new markets for American agribusiness abroad. In the 1950s and beyond, these politics became more complex as philanthropy, business, and the state engaged in vast experimentation over how these sectors of American power could best promote global food security and US interests.

Working at the nexus of the histories of philanthropy, public policy, capitalism, and international relations, this project brings philanthropy in as an organic actor and helps to delineate the extraordinary complexity of power relations in the modern political economy.



© Copyright 2023 Elizabeth Berit Barrs