At a stoplight in Louisiana, six students on their way to the 1964 Orange Bowl propped open their trunk and started chucking biscuits into cars.
These agricultural students, known as the “Ag Men,” paraded around the Southeast en route to watch the Nebraska Cornhuskers play the Auburn Tigers.
At stops along the way, they spread the word: Nebraska has discovered the key to surviving the nuclear holocaust: a bland wheat biscuit called “Nebraskit.”
This was Cold War America, a little more than a year removed from the Cuban missile crisis and a month after the JFK assassination. Nuclear shelters were being built across the country, and the Nebraska Department of Agriculture saw an opportunity to get the state’s farmers involved.
The state developed a nutrient-dense ration in the form of a biscuit. The Nebraskit used Nebraska-grown wheat and corn and was marketed as having a remarkable shelf life.
One little Nebraskit had enough calories — 850 — to sustain an inactive person for an entire day in the event of a nuclear attack.
The U.S. Department of Defense ordered 66 million pounds of Nebraskits in 1962 alone, stocking shelters as far away as Philadelphia and Brooklyn. But what made the story of the Nebraskit so remarkable is how versatile it became.
A troop of Boy Scouts voluntarily lived off Nebraskits while hiking Pikes Peak. The troop’s activities director hoped “eating Nebraskits will have the same effect on Scouts as spinach has on Popeye.”
Schools and armies in Guatemala and Colombia used the cracker to add protein to their diets. A camp of 1,500 Chinese refugees used the survival biscuits just to get by in 1965. Even the U.S. Army Reserve tried the Nebraskit.
Along their route to Miami for the Orange Bowl, the six students traded Nebraskits for discounts and freebies, including police permission to sleep on tables in a public park in Arkansas.
Now, 55 years later, the weird little wheat biscuit seemingly has vanished, even from the memory of institutions that once ballyhooed it.
“I don’t have any staff that has any recollection of it,” a receptionist at the Department of Agriculture said when asked to survey people in the department.
At the time, it was a big deal. The World-Herald wrote about the Nebraskit dozens of times, beginning in 1959, when the Department of Agriculture launched a research program aiming to find industrial uses for farm products.
The Agriculture Products Industrial Utilization Research Program, known informally as agresearch, developed edible wrapping film, starch foam, milled starch for paper manufacturing and grain alcohol gasoline blends, all using Nebraska grains.
The Nebraskit was by far its most successful product.
The recipe called for 60% hard red winter wheat (a Nebraska specialty) and 20% corn flour, with the remainder evenly split among corn sugar, shortening and salt. One prototype evolved into a family of survival ration products, including milk bars and oyster crackers that State Agriculture Director Pearle Finigan called “very tasty.”
Of course, some disagreed, including one of those students chucking biscuits at the intersection in Louisiana.
“Let’s just hope we never have to survive on these for two whole weeks,” one of the students told the Daily Nebraskan at the time.
The research program used $2.3 million of public funds in its first six years. Even when the Nebraskit proved itself, it still was the subject of much criticism and mockery.
The product cost $3,000 to develop and about 29 cents per pound for the Merchant Biscuit Company of Omaha to manufacture.
The largest order, 45 million pounds, bought by the Department of Defense for $11 million, was a bargain per unit.
The Department of Agriculture diversified plans for the Nebraskit, shopping it to militaries, schools and retailers around the world. It was even tested as a crouton for restaurants.
All this time, Finigan insisted that his department’s star research product was not about making a profit. And to be fair, it doesn’t seem that it netted a profit at all.
It was priced 2 cents per pound cheaper than its nearest competition in 1964. That was enough to make the Nebraskit a bomb shelter staple and an odd find on a Latin American school lunch tray. But it never found its way into a retail store, and many transactions were done on the cheap, with little if any profit margins.
So in 1966, Finigan announced he was discontinuing the research program.
“It has been an experiment to see if the state could undertake such a research program,” Finigan told the Associated Press at the time. “I think we’ve proven it can be done.”
If you’re hoping to sample a Nebraskit nowadays, you’re out of luck. None of the involved departments claim to have any leftovers. And despite its reputation, it might not be such a great idea to chomp on a 55-year-old biscuit.
But if you’re curious, one of those drivers at the Louisiana intersection in December 1963 offered an instant review of Nebraskits: