Relief Society and the Power of Wheat
I often host ambassadors and other international visitors at Welfare Square, and one of my favorite places to stop on the tour is in front of the tall white grain elevators. It’s easy to drive by on the freeway or see a photograph of Welfare Square and not appreciate what those grain bins stand for. They are a tall white testament to the capability of women and men working together for a specific goal.
The Relief Society members for many years gleaned fields and grew wheat that was designated to feed poor families. However, they lacked a central place to store it. In 1940, 640 men and boys in shifts ran up and down boards continuously for eight days and nights to pour 15,000 sacks of mixed cement in order to build the elevators. Then the women of the Relief Society hauled their grain to Welfare Square for storage. It was exhausting work for everybody, but that structure still stands almost 80 years later as a symbol of men and women working compatibly together on an important cause.
Wheat stalks have long represented Relief Society as a symbol of preparedness and plenty. They are part of the Relief Society seal and adorn the outside of the Relief Society Building at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints headquarters. This is because for more than 100 years the Relief Society collected and stored wheat to provide for those who needed food. When the Relief Society donated all its wheat to the larger Church in 1978, many thought the era of Relief Society wheat was over, but that has not proved to be the case. We still are exercising the “power of wheat.”
The Wheat Storage Program
In 1876, Brigham Young asked Emmeline B. Wells to organize a wheat storage program among the women of the Church. At first the women gleaned wheat from existing wheat fields. Soon, they were able to buy their own fields or purchase wheat. Ward Relief Societies up and down the territory of Utah were buying and growing their own wheat and building their own granaries. Women would watch the wheat market and buy when prices were low and sell when they were high. Tips about combating pests and when to buy or sell were discussed at various Relief Society meetings.
The Relief Society used the wheat and its proceeds to help the poor. In 1906 the Relief Society donated train cars of flour milled from Relief Society wheat to both the survivors of the San Francisco earthquake and those experiencing famine in China. In 1918 all 200,000 bushels of Relief Society wheat were sold to the United States government to meet the food emergency caused by World War I. The proceeds from the wheat sale were used to support maternity hospitals in the Salt Lake Valley.
A New Era
In 1978, Sister Barbara B. Smith and President Spencer W. Kimball incorporated the Relief Society wheat storage into the Welfare Department, to be managed with the rest of the Church’s strategic grain reserves.
Sister Smith proposed the action at general conference and said:
“The Relief Society General Presidency has prayerfully considered the matter of their wheat stewardship and has decided … it is time to include the Relief Society wheat in the worldwide Church grain storage program.
“We wish to propose that the 266,291 bushels of Relief Society wheat now be made a part of the grain storage plan of Welfare Services. … This action is unanimously supported by the Relief Society general board. …
“With President Kimball’s permission, I would like to ask the sisters present in this meeting also to affirm this action. All sisters in favor of joining with us in the decision to include the Relief Society wheat in the worldwide Church grain storage program please signify. Thank you” (“The Fruit of Our Welfare Services Labors,” Oct. 1978 general conference).
Sister Smith and her presidency sat as members of the General Welfare Committee. Sister Bingham, Sister Aburto, and I sit today in the same body along with the First Presidency, the Twelve, and the Presiding Bishopric to review all strategic welfare decisions—including wheat and humanitarian services.
The Power of Wheat Today
Wheat and grain storage are still a major component of the Church’s welfare program. Just a few weeks ago, the Welfare Executive Committee approved a large donation from LDS Charities to the World Food Programme for almost 1,400 metric tons of wheat and yellow split peas to relieve hunger in Yemen. Because it would be impractical to ship the grain from the U.S. to Yemen, LDS Charities donated $1 million in cash to allow the grain to be purchased in the region and distributed around the country.
You may not hear much about Yemen in the news these days, but more than 18 million people in the country do not have enough food, and it has one of the highest rates of child malnutrition in the world. We anticipate that this donation will serve 97,000 people, not one of them a member of our Church. The General Relief Society Presidency is still very active in supervising relief for those suffering around the world.
Wheat is a powerful gospel symbol. Each member of Relief Society is part of that imagery. What can you and I do to follow in the footsteps of Emmeline B. Wells and Barbara B. Smith? How can each of us help relieve suffering in our own communities? When you glean a handful of time for a friend who needs to talk, you are following in this tradition. When you collect cans for the local food pantry, or teach your children to support each other’s dreams and goals, or donate to the Humanitarian Fund to feed others you are continuing the tradition of Relief Society wheat. Our contributions may look slightly different from that of our foremothers who gleaned fields and filled granaries, but the purpose is the same: to relieve suffering, to cooperate for good causes, to offer something substantial to those who are hungry.
I appreciate a specific comment President Kimball made to the Relief Society conference in 1978 when the wheat stores were combined. I feel he was looking forward to the time when the world would hunger for examples of trustworthy women and men working shoulder to shoulder together on pressing issues even more than it would hunger for wheat. He said:
“We ask you … to support the Brethren, and we ask them to support you and to work together as partners and companions in furthering the work of the Lord and your own salvation. Let this gift from the Relief Society today be an example of the cooperative effort and harmony that can enrich our lives in the Church and in the home.
“May the Lord bless us in this great and divinely inspired welfare work, I humbly pray” (“The Fruit of Our Welfare Services Labors”).
I add my own prayer to President Kimball’s that each woman and man among us can find within themselves the cooperative and nourishing “power of wheat.”
Sharon Eubank is the First Counselor in the Relief Society General Presidency and the director of LDS Charities, the humanitarian organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She loves history, homemade pie, and crossword puzzles. See more thoughts from Sister Eubank on her official Facebook page.