MOUNT VERNON — Not all war heroes are made on the battlefield. Some rise up from humbler surroundings.
Longtime Grant County resident Margot Chinnock Heiniger’s contribution to America’s victory in World War II began at her family’s kitchen table when she was growing up in Glencoe, Illinois.
It was late 1941, not long after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor had pulled the United States into the war. Five-year-old Margot was having breakfast with her older brother John and their father, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Ronald J. Chinnock, who worked with the War Department in Washington, D.C., and was on one of his occasional visits home.
Noticing his children hadn’t finished their scrambled eggs, Chinnock gently chided them for wasting food during wartime, when millions of children were starving overseas and the country was gearing up to supply its fighting forces.
“I’m going to start a club,” he told them. “And I’m going to call it the Clean Plate Club, because we’re going to lick our plates and lick the Japs!”
Spreading the word
If food is a weapon, the United States was well-armed. Crop production in Europe and Asia had been decimated by years of warfare, but America’s agricultural heartland had not been touched.
U.S. farmers, whose incomes had plummeted during the Depression, shifted into high gear, producing vast amounts of commodities for shipment to allied nations.
Even America’s prodigious farm productivity, however, would be strained by the demands of World War II.
Food rationing had not yet begun in the United States, but it was already on the horizon, and people were motivated to do their part for the war effort.
Chinnock’s idea of a Clean Plate Club spread rapidly.
Margot and John, of course, were the charter members, followed by Margot’s best friend, Betsy Brown, and her brother Cal. And from there, it just kept growing.
“The neighbors joined and then their friends joined and their friends joined until it got big,” Heiniger recalled during in an interview at her home outside Mount Vernon, where she shared her recollections of the club’s beginnings while leafing through a scrapbook filled with photos and memorabilia that chronicled its development.
Initially aimed at schoolchildren, the club was free to join — but first you had to sign the pledge.
“I, ________, being a member in good standing of the Clean Plate Club,” the oath began, “hereby agree that I will always finish all the food on my plate and drink all my milk, unless excused, and will continue to do this until Uncle Sam has licked the Japs and Hitler.”
For a nickel, members could get a Clean Plate Club button to pin on their coat.
Chinnock’s wife, Barbara, turned out to have a gift for public relations. In addition to writing the club bulletin, she wrote articles for women’s magazines, children’s publications and educational journals — anything she could think of to get the word out.
Soon the Chinnocks were deluged with letters from children wanting to take the pledge and join the club. Teachers were especially receptive to the idea, with many of them encouraging their classes to join.
Newspapers around the country began writing about their local clubs. Some even took up the cause themselves, becoming official sponsors.
As early as February 1942, the Minneapolis Star-Journal was promoting the idea. Other papers that wrote about the Clean Plate Club included the Washington Post, the New York Journal & American and the Chicago Herald-American. Articles also appeared in My Weekly Reader, Child Life and Time Magazine — which carried a photo of John and Margot licking their plates.
“It got so big there were members from Hawaii, from Puerto Rico — it hit all the states,” Heiniger said.
As the Clean Plate Club became a national phenomenon, it seemed everyone wanted to join.
At one point, Heiniger recalled, President Franklin D. Roosevelt contacted her father and asked if he could become an honorary member.
“Well, of course, he didn’t even have to pay for a button,” she said. “We gave him one for free!”
Not everyone could be part of the club, however — according to Heiniger, at least one celebrity application was rejected.
Baby Snooks, a popular radio character played by comedian Fanny Brice, asked to be made the club’s honorary president but was turned down for being “a stuck-up snob,” as Heiniger remembered. (A letter from the assistant publicity director for Snooks’ radio show is enshrined in Heiniger’s scrapbook.)
Whether it was the president’s interest or the Clean Plate Club’s growing popularity, the federal government eventually took control of the organization, making it part of the Food Distribution Administration, a wartime agency housed within the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The USDA’s online archives contain a number of records related to the program, including internal reports that were not made public until long after the war.
In the summer of 1943, the Food Distribution Administration sponsored Clean Plate Club chapters in seven test cities around the country and measured garbage collection as a way of gauging the program’s effectiveness. Collections decreased in six of the participating cities, the administration reported.
In Kansas City, Missouri, for instance, trash pickups dropped by 12.5% in the first two weeks of the club’s existence, saving an estimated 300,000 pounds of food that would otherwise have gone to waste.
Buoyed by the success of this experiment, the Food Distribution Administration poured more resources into the program.
In a document dated Nov. 15, 1943, the agency lays out a detailed blueprint for launching Clean Plate Club chapters throughout the land in the effort to curb food waste. The plan called for promoting the club’s mission through newspaper articles, radio contests, posters, billboards, department store window displays, table tents at restaurants and flyers mailed out with utility bills.
In another report produced the following month, the agency spells out the rationale for promoting the clubs as a way to involve everyday Americans in the war effort.
“Food rationing has forced the American people to give up the complacency of peace-time and the general conception that America’s food resources were unlimited,” the report states.
“The public is evidently ready for a food conservation campaign and should respond well to any organized effort to point out the major sources of food waste and suggested measures for reducing it. The objective of the Clean Plate Club campaign is to get all the people thinking about food waste.”
The program even continued after the war, when the U.S. found itself shipping massive amounts of food assistance to countries whose economies had been devastated by years of armed conflict.
“Help feed the hungry boys and girls in Europe,” urged a 1947 Clean Plate Club poster. “Be a FOOD-SAVER — not a FOOD-WASTER! Always eat all the food on your plate!”
Looking back, Heiniger said she was proud of her family’s contribution to the war effort by starting the Clean Plate Club, although it also had its downside. She and her brother inevitably became poster children for the campaign, and the young Margot wasn’t always thrilled with the attention.
Heiniger remembered being at the movies with her best friend when a newsreel segment about the club came on the screen.
“All of a sudden here comes the Clean Plate Club and a picture of me. And Betsy jumped up and said, ‘That’s Margot! She’s right here,'” Heiniger recalled. “I was so embarrassed I hid under my seat.”
Nevertheless, she said she was sorry that the program seems to have been forgotten by so many people today.
Heiniger wrote a letter to the Smithsonian Institution offering to donate her Clean Plate Club scrapbook for exhibition in the National Museum of American History, but she never heard back. Still, she remained hopeful that another museum might take her up on the offer.
“All I want to do with this is I want to share it with people,” she said.
“I think it needs to be somewhere where people can see it,” she added. “Because it’s a part of history.”
Editor’s note: Margot Chinnock Heiniger, the inspiration for this story, died on June 9, 2022, a little over two weeks after being interviewed by the Blue Mountain Eagle.