Last month I had another one of those serendipitous experiences in the food waste space that are seemingly becoming ever more frequent. I was in Portland for a discussion with Chellie Pingree and her forward-thinking staff on challenges and opportunities in food waste following her recent introduction of legislation (HR 4184) aimed at reducing the vast amount of food currently going to waste across the country annually. During that conversation, her chief of staff brought up a story of a notable painting that had once been hanging in my local post office, where I coincidentally happened to be heading after the meeting. Once there, my search didn’t turn up the painting. I did, however, find a large WWII-era poster encased in glass depicting the grease from a frying pan being poured into a fire, from which several bombs were flying outward. The caption brought everything into perspective. At the top was the phrase “Save waste fats for explosives.” At the bottom: “Take them to your meat dealer.” The timing of this discovery was fortuitous, not only because I had just finished a discussion with Pingree’s team which centered on the value of food, but because I had planned to carry that very critical theme into this month’s post.
This poster, and many others like it produced in the period from 1939 to 1945, takes us back to a different time — a time when Allied countries had banded together to stop the threat from the Axis powers (mainly Germany, Japan, and Italy). Victory was the ultimate priority, and everyone was expected to do their part to achieve that goal — from soldiers on the front lines to industry and laborers to farms and farmers to homemakers and family members. Not winning the War wasn’t an option, and behavior was shaped accordingly. It was wartime — a time of crisis which necessitated an “all hands on deck” mindset.
I had seen many of these posters before, but not this one. It was a fitting reminder of resource valuation. Few scenarios put a premium on resources like war; the heightened demand for critical resources coupled with scarcity from supply disruptions quickly yields an appreciation for the value of those resources, and a sharp overarching focus on resource optimization. Discarding resources that still have value in other applications isn’t considered, and there is increased incentive to find creative uses to extract every possible ounce of value from what is on hand. This is the environment of our grandparents; one from which we have quickly strayed.
Reviewing many of the posters from that era clearly reinforces the difference in collective mindset between then and now, and the difference in the level of engagement by the government on critical resource issues (especially food). Several posters emphasized the need to conserve water as it was needed by industry for the War effort. Others noted the need to save products like wool, paper, rags and especially scrap metal to recycle them for War production. Outputs to inputs — a more circular view was in vogue at the time. Some posters encouraged those at home to start victory gardens to produce needed food, others encouraged healthy eating to maintain the strength that the country needed to harness. Innovative ideas were encouraged to speed production, and conservation of critical items like gas and rubber were stressed.
But some of the most powerful posters involve food — and the clear recognition of its value at the time. Some of the key headlines: Food Is A Weapon — Don’t Waste It. Food Will Win The War. Food Is Fighting Strength. Where our men are fighting, Our Food Is Fighting. Many of these messages were accompanied by pictures of soldiers or battle scenes. Others stressed using existing supplies wisely: Know Your Onions. Make All The Food Go All The Way. Lick The Platter Clean — Don’t Waste Food. Help Us Preserve Your Surplus Food. The theme was clear — sufficient food supplies (and accompanying resources) were essential to winning the War (and to life) — and the nation needed to unify behind optimizing food resources. In such an environment, “waste” had a different meaning. Valuing resources trumped wasting them.
So the image at my local post office brought to mind the values of that prior era; values that emerged from the crisis mode of the time. I’m left wondering why we need a crisis of that magnitude to reinforce those lessons. In fact, we already have several enormous crises to which we can point to resurrect that resource valuation mindset, particularly regarding wasted food. Persistent hunger (49 million food insecure Americans), rapidly rising obesity rates (and associated health care costs), and environmental impacts of food waste (air and water pollution and needless soil degradation) to name a few. And since we don’t exist in a vacuum, but as part of a larger global food system, let’s not forget the looming food-water-energy nexus challenge of feeding another 2.3 billion global citizens by 2050. That challenge won’t go away; in fact it is just around the corner. So if we need crises to act, we certainly have them.
How quickly our mindset has changed since the War years. Waste is too easy. Food is considered cheap to too many. The culture of abundance in developed countries has led to enormous amounts of wasted food and all of the associated resource inputs (think water, for one). It has also led to missed opportunities to achieve social and environmental benefits through the proper valuation of food. A look back in time at our mindset and actions in a period of wartime crisis provides invaluable lessons that can be replicated. We can act as if wasting food is not an option. We’re creating our own crises by not properly valuing our food today. We’d do well to look back and change course.