Why I'm Building A New Clean Plate Culture Why I'm Building A New Clean Plate Culture

Why I'm Building A New Clean Plate Culture

by Joshua Treuhaft

March 4, 2014

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. 

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.”

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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Why I'm Building A New Clean Plate Culture