But now, in light of the rising levels of obesity in America, many health advocates have come to criticize the notion of the Clean Plate Club, claiming that it cultivates unhealthy relationships with food and can lead to overeating. A 2013 study in Pediatrics found that “more than half of parents asked their adolescent children to eat all the food on their plate, while a third prompted their kids to eat more even when they (the kids) stated they were full."
Whether or not the vestigial effects of the Club are directly related to (or causing) the obesity “epidemic” in America is not for me to argue. I certainly agree that obesity is a major problem that needs to be addressed and that unhealthy food relationships are most likely a factor. But there are other pieces of the Clean Plate Puzzle that are worth exploring.
On Food and Waste
Like obesity, wasting food is also a growing problem that needs to be addressed, stemming, at least partially, from our ailing relationship with food. According to the USDA, in 2012, “an estimated 14.5 percent of American households were food insecure at least some time during the year… meaning they lacked access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members.” That’s about one out of every seven households, and that’s up from 11.1 percent in 2007. At a time when such a large percentage of the U.S. population (not to mention the global population) is having trouble consistently putting meals on the table, shouldn’t we be thinking about how to waste less and eat or redistribute more?
Instead, as a nation we’re throwing vast quantities of food into the trash. According to a 2011 EPA Waste Characterization report, food is the number one material we send to landfills and incinerators in the U.S. And when food decomposes in a landfill, it creates methane – a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than CO2 – which escapes into the air we breathe and fills our atmosphere.
But there is hope. We have a tremendous opportunity to re-establish a healthy and respectful relationship with food, in a way that affirms its value, nourishes all of us, and works within the limits of a finite planet.
Towards a New Clean Plate Culture
The initial intent of the Clean Plate Club was to teach kids to appreciate and value the food on their plates and in their lives so that they would waste less of it. That seems like a cause still worth pursuing, and not just for kids, but for all of us. Food is essential to everything we do. The fact that many of us have grown disconnected from it or lost track of its value can (and should) be examined and changed.
There are so many inspiring individuals and organizations working tirelessly every day on this issue, too many to call out here. Just search for “food” on good.is and you’ll see the breadth of people helping to build a new Clean Plate Culture. A culture where the stuff we put on the plate is clean (i.e., nutritious, no harmful chemicals and additives, and ethically sourced) and where the plate itself is clean after the meal (i.e., we were served just the right amount, ate what we needed, and didn’t throw excess in the trash).