Preserve - WWI

By now, many people who are interested in the subject of global food waste reduction have had at least some exposure to the posters from World War I and II which extol the importance of saving food to support the troops and the war effort.

Many were created under the auspices of the U.S. Food Administration, which was created in 1917 to control the production, distribution, and conservation of food at that critical time in history.  One of the more frequently-seen posters from the World War I era contains the message “Food – don’t waste it” with 6 numbered points advising Americans to buy it with thought, cook it with care, use less wheat & meat, buy local foods, serve just enough, and use what is left.  Those messages are now just over 100 years old, and the really fascinating thing is just how relevant they are today.

Another frequently-cited poster from the World War 1 era advises readers to “Lick the Platter Clean – Don’t Waste Food.”  Yet another notes that “Food is Ammunition – Don’t waste It.”  And a rarely seen but powerful poster shows a line of Army trucks carrying food past a soldier to the front lines with the caption “Keep It Coming: We must not only feed our Soldiers at the front but the millions of women & children behind our lines.”  There’s a strong message of shared sacrifice there, which again, 100 years later, syncs perfectly with the themes of “shared value” and “shared responsibility” that are increasingly surfacing in business circles as the traditional profit-maximization focus of business is being increasingly challenged.

Others are from the World War II era.  One popular poster carries the headline “Food Is a Weapon – Don’t Waste It” with the additional instruction to “Buy Wisely, Cook Carefully, and Eat It All.”  Another notes “Join the ranks” – Fight Food Waste in the home – Buy to save, Serve to save, Store to save.”  A third covers the issue of recycling food for animals, showing a smiling pig embracing a can of food scraps with the caption “We want your Kitchen Waste” and advising consumers to properly sort for downstream use (keeping it dry, and free from glass, metal, bones, and paper).  All of these points align with messaging being passed to consumers today to address the high level of household food waste in the U.S. and developed countries.

I confess – I can’t get enough of these posters.  In the last twelve years I’ve seen many of them, and I continue to uncover more, but they really began to speak to me one day about four years ago – when I spotted one hanging in a glass-encased frame in my local post office with the message: “Save waste fats for explosives – Take Them To Your Meat Dealer.”  I still can’t get over the fact that I discovered this poster, which has obviously been hanging in that post office for a very long time, on the return from a meeting on food waste reduction with Maine Representative Chellie Pingree and staff.

Over time, I’ve reflected on why I am so drawn to these posters, and I am coming to some conclusions.  In part, it’s because of the powerful messaging, coupled with the compelling imagery from another era.  Short, powerful, creative messages with intriguing visuals extolling the entire population to change behavior.  And many of these posters are the ultimate in brevity.  One of my favorites from World War I shows the image of a stars and stripes-draped heroine holding up a bountiful supply of food items on a scale with the one-word caption:  Preserve.  The message is clear:  she is the shining example to the masses of American women behind her – inspiring them to be responsible with the country’s abundant food resources.  An alternate version shows Uncle Sam displaying a cornucopia of fresh food with the identical one-word admonition.  One can’t help but feel a sense of responsibility for properly handling this bounty.

I am also drawn to the underlying sense of unity behind these posters.  There’s a clear feeling that we’re in a very tough place, and that we all need to pitch in – together – to pull ourselves out of it.  And norms are clear – there’s a basic expectation that everyone will do the right thing for the War effort – because the consequences of losing the War are unthinkable.

But at the end of the day, I think what draws me most is the underlying level of urgency that is conveyed in these posters, coupled with the call for collaborative action.  The War efforts were incredibly powerful motivators for responsible behavior concerning food supplies.  Food was viewed as a valuable resource that was not to be wasted – and the connection was clearly made that saving food resources would help win the Wars.  There was obvious urgency there, you couldn’t ignore the threat – you had to act now – because the idea of not winning the war was not an option.  Defeating Nazism meant nothing less than saving the free world.

All of these themes hold true today, in fact, the parallels to our current situation are incredibly poignant.  The battle that must be won still involves saving the world, only this time the focus is environmental and social in the form of halting climate change and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.  And, as in the War years, the need for unity, a shift in norms, and urgent action is essential.

As I look back to the War years, it’s gratifying to know that a broad rallying of people and governments occurred to address the overarching threat.  But as I continue to compare the two eras, I feel that the needed levels of unity, collaboration, and urgency to address our environmental and social needs – as reflected by the SDGs – have not yet been achieved.  And this despite the fact that we have much more knowledge of the state of the planet and the costs of inaction today than we did even ten years ago.  We’ve made progress in the last ten years, to be sure, but we have so much more to do – and not much time to do it.  Ten years to the due date for the Goals is really the blink of an eye.

Can we reasonably expect the collaboration, the unity, the urgency, the change in norms, and the very mindset change that occurred during the War years to occur in the near future regarding climate risk?

Let’s hope so.

But right now I’m thinking we need to consciously look backward for lessons on mindset shift from the War years in order to generate the needed unity – and urgency – to address the critical challenges of climate and the SDGs going forward.