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Let\’s Clean Our Plates

Welcome to My Green Vermont - A Blog by Eulalia Benejam Cobb.
By Eulalia Benejam Cobb

Here is what Pope Francis, or Pope Frank, as the Nuns on the Bus call him, said last week:  \”Throwing away food is like stealing from the table of those who are poor and hungry.\”

Does that sound familiar?  It\’s something my  mother could have said, and probably yours too.  I remember sitting numbly before a congealing omelette, being told to think of the starving children of Africa, or China, or some other far away place, and not waste a single mouthful.  And I remember wondering how forcing down that last scrap of food on my plate was going to make any difference to hungry orphans, since I couldn\’t actually ship my leftovers to them.

Later, when the age of dieting was upon me, I read that the old compulsion to clean our plates instead of listening to our bodies was largely responsible for weight problems among adults.  Some diet gurus even advised purposely leaving some food on the plate at every meal.

At about that same time my husband and I were facing the dilemma of how to handle our children\’s reluctance to eat almost any food other than cheese, crackers, and dessert.  Both of us had been brought up according to the clean-plate philosophy, but we had come away from the experience with opposite attitudes:  my husband was for hewing to the family tradition, whereas I was loath to turn the dinner table into a battleground.  I  had great faith in Dr. Spock\’s statement that babies (and children too, I surmised) would, if presented with a variety of wholesome foods, over time choose to eat a balanced diet.  

We finally hit on a compromise:  the girls had to serve themselves at least a taste of every dish on the table–and this might mean a single green bean–but they had to clean their plates.  We thought this was brilliant:  it exposed the kids to a variety of foods, gave them a sense of control over what they ate, eliminated waste, and, at least in theory, made for amicable mealtimes.

Food plays a mysterious but powerful part in the parent-child dynamic that has nothing to do with flavor or nutrition, so often times even that single green bean became the pretext for a power struggle.  But on the whole our mealtimes were reasonably civilized, and free of waste.

As to the latter, it helped that we had a compost pile and chickens.  We still do.  Nevertheless, just the other day I threw out a couple of moldy onions (chickens don\’t eat onions).  I should have bunged them in the compost, but before I knew it they were in the trash and on their way to the landfill.  Tonight, after a belated Mother\’s Day dinner out, I watched the waiter put the little container of butter, still three-quarters full, on the dirty plates he was carrying away.  There went a considerable number of calories that somebody could have used.

The same day I read the Pope\’s words about waste I learned that, according to the United Nations, one third of the food produced on the planet goes to waste.  How is that for an appalling statistic, a statistic that needs to change?

In future posts I plan to explore this topic further, and with your help I hope that we can come up with some things that we can all do, right now, not only to stop stealing from the table of the poor, but to put some food on it.

7 Responses

  1. I can tell you that very little food goes to waste in my one person household. That is one bad habit I have never made my own and never will. I am a great believer in saving my leftovers and eating them the next day and not buying more food than I could possibly eat in one week's time. My money is also too precious for that.

  2. I feel guilty every time I have to throw food out. It doesn't happen often, but it breaks my heart when I've forgotten about something or misjudged how much we can really consume in a certain amount of time.

  3. There is a local farmer near Nashville, called the barefoot farmer for reasons you can figure out, who brings food to a location in Nashville, and sells what he can, and for very low prices. He told me that he plows under about 75% of his crop, because he can't sell it, and refuses to go to Farmer's Markets, because his prices would be too low, and drive the other farmers away. There is more to his colorful story, but his waste is plowed back in for the next crop.

  4. It is mysterious and disturbing. I am from a clean your plate family as well and we haven't had that rule here because there are eating disorders in my immediate family. I just would rather not go there. But they have to try it all. And I use small plates–and they can always have more. It's hard.

  5. A reader from Maryland says:Just wanted to tell you about a documentary called \”A Place at the Table,\” which addresses the topic of your blogpost. I saw part of a TV interview with the two female co-directors of the film, who said the issue is not that there isn't enough food, but that it is a \”distribution\” problem (that is putting it simply). I haven't seen the film yet (it is not widely distributed, unfortunately), but I have a note to myself (one of many, of good intentions) to find out how/where to see it, even if it means trying to \”bring\” it to a theater near us. I was very impressed with what I heard in the interview. Here's a link about the film, and if you click on \”Full Site,\” it takes you to a picture with other informative links on that picture.

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