2.4 Man-Meals a Day

The military's foray into garbology occurred in 1941, when two enlisted men, Horace Schwerin and Phalen Golden, were forced to discontinue a survey they were conducting among new recruits about which aspects of Army life the recruits most disliked. (Conducting polls of military personnel was, they had learned, against regulations.) Schwerin and Golden had already discovered, however, that the low quality of the food was the most frequently heard complaint, and they resolved to look into this one matter with an investigation that could not be considered a poll.

What Schwerin and Golden did was to station observers in mess halls to record the types of food that were most commonly wasted and the volume of waste by type of food. The result, after 2.4 million man-meals had been observed, was a textbook example of how garbage studies can produce not only behavioral insights but also practical benefits. Schwerin and Golden discovered that 20 percent of the food prepared for Army mess halls was eventually thrown away, and that one reason for this was simply excess preparation. Here are some more of their findings, as summarized in a wartime article that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post:

  1. Soldiers ate more if they were allowed to smoke in the mess hall.
  2. They ate more if they went promptly to table instead of waiting on line outside --- perhaps because the food became cold.
  3. They ate more if they fell to on their own initiative instead of by command.
  4. They cared little for soups, and 65 percent of the kale and nearly as much of the spinach went into the garbage can.
  5. Favorite desserts were cakes and cookies, canned fruit, fruit salad, and gelatin.
  6. They ate ice cream in almost any amount that was served to them.

"That, sergeant, is an excellent piece of work," General George C. Marshall, the Army chief of staff, told Horace Schwerin, after hearing a report by Schwerin on the research findings. The Army adopted many of Schwerin and Golden's recommendations, and began saving some 2.5 million pounds of food a day. It is perhaps not surprising to learn that until joining the Army Horace Schwerin had been in market research, and, among other things, had helped CBS to perfect a device for measuring audience reaction to radio shows.

--- From Rubbish:
The Archeology of Garbage

William Rathje and Cullen Murphy
©2001 (University of Arizona Press)

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