What a World War I Poster Can Teach Us About Food Waste

This article has been edited for context and re-published from UC Food Observer, your daily selection of must-read news on food policy, nutrition, agriculture and more, curated by the University of California as part of its UC Global Food Initiative

Learn how Los Angeles is tackling its broken food cycle with the help of Central Wholesale Produce Market, Food Forward and other organizations on "LA Foodways." Watch now.

There’s a growing awareness of the negative impacts of food waste. In a guest blog post for UC Food Observer, UC researcher Wendi Gosliner (part of the team at UC ANR’s Nutrition Policy Institute, a cutting-edge unit that’s using research to transform public policy) shared this observation:

What history can teach us

I’m a big proponent of both reducing food waste and producing more food in communities via school, home and community gardens. It goes back in part to lessons I’ve learned from studying World War I (WWI), when the American government set food conservation goals, along with goals for local food production via Liberty — later Victory — Gardens. Big point: The World War I poster included in this post has advice we’d be well served to heed today.

This is an iconic poster from World War I. “Food…don’t waste it.” The image is regularly shared on Twitter and Facebook.

Food--don't waste it | Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Food Commandments. This poster was created by Frederic G. Cooper for the U.S. Food Administration in 1917. | Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Period piece or photoshopped image?

The original was produced in 1917 by the newly created United States Food Administration, which was under the direction of the newly appointed food “czar” – Herbert Hoover.

The poster was reissued during World War II. It’s been revised in recent years by individuals and organizations interested in encouraging an ethos incorporating local foods and sustainability.

While I’m the UC Food Observer, I also dabble in the history of wartime poster art. I’m often asked if this is a contemporary mock-up made to look and feel vintage.

It’s not a mock-up. It’s the real deal, produced more than 100 years ago, with messages we should embrace today.

The original poster: Yes: ‘buy local foods’ is rule 4

The original poster has six rules that we’d be well served to follow today. The fourth rule – buy local foods – is somewhat of a surprise to people today, because the notion of buying local seems somewhat modern. But in WWI, the U.S. government encouraged the local production and consumption of food, in part, to free trains to more effectively ship troops and war materiel.

Tackling food waste through preservation

We did it before and we can do it again. Many land grant institutions, including the University of California, host master food preserver programs. These programs teach best practices on food safety and preservation to volunteers. The extensive training program prepares volunteers to work in their community educating others on the safe practices of food preservation, including pickling, drying, freezing, canning and fruit preserves.

You'll also find fantastic tips on this website, produced by Save The Food.

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Thinking about gardening? Do we have resources for you!

Gardening and food preservation go hand in hand. The University of California sponsors the state’s Master Gardener Program, which fields more than 5,000 volunteers in communities across the state. The Master Gardener Program is a national program, housed at the land grant institution in each state, but it’s also connected to the USDA. Free gardening resources are available here. Advice to grow by…just ask.

Takeaway message?

Food waste is both an ethical and environmental issue. It should concern us that we waste nearly 40 percent of the food we produce and purchase in this food-abundant nation.

In contrast, our nation produced about 40 percent of the fruits and vegetables we consumed on the American home front in World War II in school, home, community and workplace gardens. That was the result of the iconic Victory Garden program (which actually got its start in WWI).

Three messages then: participate in the national effort, commit to wasting less food, and if you can, produce some food of your own.

To emphasize just how important saving and growing food was in World War I, here are a few posters from that era

Waste not, want not - prepare for winter | Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Waste not, want not - prepare for winter | Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Keep it coming - waste nothing | Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Keep it coming - waste nothing | Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Don't let up - Keep on saving food | Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Don't let up - Keep on saving food | Courtesy of the Library of Congress
We are saving you, you save food | Courtesy of the Library of Congress
We are saving you, you save food | Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Writer's Note: There are many additional resources about #foodwaste on Twitter and Facebook.

Connect: ReFED, a collaboration of nonprofit, government, business and foundation leaders, released a report in 2016 that identifies a number of potential solutions to the food waste challenge.

Read: Dana Gunders, formerly of the National Resource Defense Council, authored a 2012 report called Wasted that sparked much of this work. Dana also authored a book called Waste Free Kitchen Handbook: A Guide to Eating Well and Saving Money by Wasting Less Food. Both are great reads. 

Top Image: Professor Harry Nelson of San Francisco teaches his ten-year-old daughter Pat (left) and her Girl Scout friends some pointers in transplanting young vegetables in a Victory garden. | Courtesy of the Library of Congress 

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