During both World Wars, food waste came up, but the First World War was a bit more significant. We were still coming off the effects of the Gilded Age, when wealthy Americans ate to excess, feasting on a great deal of meat, including some from rare or even endangered animals (for instance, terrapin, the diamondback turtle made so famous by soup, was hunted nearly to extinction and is still threatened to this day). Even as we underwent a series of depressions and industrial recessions between 1893 and 1914, the rise of restaurants and the proliferation of refrigerated railroad cars made more food accessible to more Americans than ever before.
But WWI made global competition for resources more intense than ever. As the United States entered 1917 with only enough wheat to feed itself, and hog, beef, and dairy production designed largely for domestic consumption, Americans had to conserve in order to free up enough food to send overseas.
The United States Food Administration's anti-waste campaign was part of that conservation plan. Progressives loved statistics, and used them to good measure. If each American saved just one slice of bread per meal, for instance, it would add up to hundreds of thousands of loaves, which would translate into plenty of wheat flour to be sent overseas.
Combined with messages of thrift (curbing waste saves money) were subtle messages about weight and consumption that fit in nicely with the new Progressive values of self-control, an active lifestyle, and the willowy Gibson Girl physique.
The first propaganda poster makes a slightly more subtle play, reading in part, "Leave a clean dinner plate. Take only such food as you will eat. Thousands are starving in Europe." Sound familiar? Perhaps your family used the (admittedly racist) "Children are starving in Africa," but the sentiment is the same. Photographs and images of children in Belgium and France were being used to good effect in the United States in an attempt to wake up isolationists to the terrors happening abroad. Both phrases use guilt and shame to get you to finish eating everything you took. Not exactly the most healthful advice, but at least during WWI they recommended you take only what you knew you could eat, instead of letting your eyes be bigger than your stomach.
Although not as popular as calls to plant war gardens or can fruits and vegetables, the "gospel of the clean plate" nevertheless urged people to think more about food waste. Of course, as one woman complained in a letter to Herbert Hoover, the poor already saved food, planted gardens, ate less meat, and preserved what they could.
Still it's advice that we would all do well to emulate today. We're pretty good at eating leftovers in my house, but sometimes we just can't finish them in time or (shocker, I know), dinner wasn't as good as you'd hoped, so eating the leftovers becomes a real chore. My leftovers usually make it to the compost pile, if not our stomachs. But other food waste reduction advice of the time included feeding
But if you find yourself buying boxes or bags of leafy greens and salmon and fresh fruit in a fit of health this year, maybe hold off a bit, and eat down your cupboards instead.