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Why I'm Building A New Clean Plate Culture

For most of my childhood, despite being perfectly healthy and more than happy to eat the delicious food my mother cooked, I was routinely rewarded for finishing everything she served with the at-the-time-exciting-but-in-hindsight-seemingly-meaningless invitation to join the Clean Plate Club (CPC). The words “Great job. You made the Clean Plate Club today” have been permanently etched into my subconscious. And from all the conversations I’ve had about this topic, I’m not the only one. As a kid, I never reflected on the underlying message behind this club, or thought about why it would have come to be in the first place. As a teen, it seemed like an oddity, a habit of mind and speech that my parents continued to display because that’s how they’d always done it. More recently, though, as I’ve delved deeper into the issue of food waste, the Clean Plate Club has taken on new meaning for me, and despite some of the club’s shortcomings, the main message is highly relevant today, perhaps for different reasons than it was initially intended.

So what exactly is the Clean Plate Club and why did they need so many members?

In 1917, in response to food shortages resulting from World War I, President Woodrow Wilson created the U.S. Food Administration to ensure “that the limited amount of food America had as a result of [the war] didn’t go to waste.” The Clean Plate campaign was one of their earliest initiatives, the goal of which was to teach kids to appreciate and value the food on their plates and in their lives. Public communications and school activities were used to elevate the importance of food in a time where it was in somewhat short supply.

The approach seems to have been successful, in many respects: Not only was it relaunched in elementary schools across the country in 1947, when food was scarce again following the Great Depression and World War II, but it has remained in use, informally, in many parts of the country to this day (my family in Ohio included).

Shifting Times, Shifting Meanings

Somewhere along the line, though, the Clean Plate Club became disconnected from the original intent. Even in times of relative abundance, parents continued using its message as a motivator to get their kids to eat every scrap on the plate – “Do you wanna be in the Clean Plate Club tonight? Make sure you finish your rice.”

But now, in light of the rising levels of obesity in America, many health advocates have come to criticize the notion of the Clean Plate Club, claiming that it cultivates unhealthy relationships with food and can lead to overeating. A 2013 study in Pediatrics found that “more than half of parents asked their adolescent children to eat all the food on their plate, while a third prompted their kids to eat more even when they (the kids) stated they were full."

Whether or not the vestigial effects of the Club are directly related to (or causing) the obesity “epidemic” in America is not for me to argue. I certainly agree that obesity is a major problem that needs to be addressed and that unhealthy food relationships are most likely a factor. But there are other pieces of the Clean Plate Puzzle that are worth exploring.

On Food and Waste

Like obesity, wasting food is also a growing problem that needs to be addressed, stemming, at least partially, from our ailing relationship with food. According to the USDA, in 2012, “an estimated 14.5 percent of American households were food insecure at least some time during the year… meaning they lacked access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members.” That’s about one out of every seven households, and that’s up from 11.1 percent in 2007. At a time when such a large percentage of the U.S. population (not to mention the global population) is having trouble consistently putting meals on the table, shouldn’t we be thinking about how to waste less and eat or redistribute more?

Instead, as a nation we’re throwing vast quantities of food into the trash. According to a 2011 EPA Waste Characterization report, food is the number one material we send to landfills and incinerators in the U.S. And when food decomposes in a landfill, it creates methane – a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than CO2 – which escapes into the air we breathe and fills our atmosphere.

But there is hope. We have a tremendous opportunity to re-establish a healthy and respectful relationship with food, in a way that affirms its value, nourishes all of us, and works within the limits of a finite planet.

Towards a New Clean Plate Culture

The initial intent of the Clean Plate Club was to teach kids to appreciate and value the food on their plates and in their lives so that they would waste less of it. That seems like a cause still worth pursuing, and not just for kids, but for all of us. Food is essential to everything we do. The fact that many of us have grown disconnected from it or lost track of its value can (and should) be examined and changed.

There are so many inspiring individuals and organizations working tirelessly every day on this issue, too many to call out here. Just search for “food” on and you’ll see the breadth of people helping to build a new Clean Plate Culture. A culture where the stuff we put on the plate is clean (i.e., nutritious, no harmful chemicals and additives, and ethically sourced) and where the plate itself is clean after the meal (i.e., we were served just the right amount, ate what we needed, and didn’t throw excess in the trash).

I’m working towards building a new Clean Plate Culture so that when I ask my kids if they want to join the Clean Plate Club, it really means something. Every bit counts: Whether it's composting the totally inedible scraps from my kitchen and reframing the way we perceive food waste through my photos of frozen food scraps (check out #BeautifulDecay @TheTreuhaft on Instagram); or educating friends and family about root-to-stalk cooking and following Rene Redzepi's lead by discovering and promoting the amazing potential left in so much of the food we dismiss. But, I want to know, what would you do to change the conversation around food?

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