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Why I'm Building A New Clean Plate Culture

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    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).   


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