- The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 31% of food is wasted in homes (21%) and in consumer-facing businesses (10%). Researchers are looking for ways to lower those numbers without being critical in their messaging.
- Food waste isn't a simple issue. It stems from a number of causes — smaller households sometimes find it hard to buy the quantities they need; for some money lost is not motivation to decrease food waste because time is most important; and some people shop in an aspirational manner, buying food they want to cook but don't end up having the time to prepare.
- Interviews done by researchers indicate that the grocery store is the ideal place for people to receive messaging about food waste because in that location they are thinking about food already.
If you compare a thousand households to mine, I would wager my wife and I don’t waste food at nearly the “average” rate. We are a one-percenter in that way.
My wife has a strategy that pays off in respect to food waste. We will/must literally consume all of our perishable food before she goes shopping. Every last mandarin, every last wrinkled potato, every apple hiding in the crisper door in the fridge - they all must be gone before she replenishes the food stocks. We very rarely throw anything out.
I don’t think most people approach food waste in the same stingy way.
A U.S. Department of Agriculture blog post recently looked at the psychology of food waste
From that post, here are some excerpts:
What’s the psychology behind food waste and what can we do to change our behavior? This interview features insights from Brian Roe, Professor and Faculty Lead at The Ohio State University’s Food Waste Collaborative and Laura Moreno, who received her Ph.D. studying food waste at the University of California, Berkeley.
Nguyen: The USDA estimates that 31 percent of the available food supply is wasted in homes (21 percent) and in consumer-facing businesses (10 percent). Food waste is a big problem and people need to make changes in their personal routines to reduce food waste. How do we approach the problem in a noncritical way?
Moreno: I discard food in my household and I totally feel guilty about it. A characterization of people who waste as lazy, careless, or excessive simplifies the issue to one of personal choices, but research has found it to be much more complex. Decisions and choices made by consumers are influenced by decisions made up and down the food supply chain. For example, people who live alone cite that it is difficult to purchase food in quantities that make sense for them, which leads to regular over-purchasing.
Nguyen: Brian, in your 2015 food waste survey 77 percent of respondents said they felt guilty about wasting food, but 51 percent also said it would be difficult to further reduce household food waste further. If guilt isn’t a big motivator to change behavior, what is?
Roe: An average family can toss food worth thousands of dollars each year, and that could be enough to grab the attention of some households. Wasting food wastes resources, takes up landfill space and causes environmental damages, and this may be the motivating factor for some households to take notice. For others, the idea that excess food could be redirected to those that experience food insecurity might be the factor that spurs their action.
Nguyen: So perhaps we should tailor our messages to different households. What about highlighting the cost of food waste?
Roe: For some, the dollar losses do add up, but there is no check-out ticket in your kitchen each time you toss uneaten food, so the losses are not salient – they don’t slap you in the face like a $1,500 bill at the end of the year would. Also, some steps required to reduce food waste can take time, and time is money. For some, the extra time is simply more precious than the dollars that are lost.
Moreno: It is not always a simple relationship between food and money. Money lost is different than value. For example, sometimes people buy larger quantities of items due to sale or value. Say someone bought a pack of three zucchini when they only needed one because it was the same price as one. They ended up discarding the other two, but didn’t consider it a waste of money because they would have paid that much anyways (this is a true story from my research).
Moreno: People get a lot of benefits from food, one of them has been dubbed “good provider identity.” People express love and care through providing things, including food to their friends, family, and other loved ones. However, for some people, this results in buying more food than needed to make sure people’s cravings are satisfied or that they have access to healthy food. This can lead to food being discarded.
Another example is that people often strive for self-improvement, including eating healthier. A person may shop with the intention of consuming healthier foods, but may not follow through for a variety of reasons including lack of time to cook or feeling stressed and needing comfort food.
Nguyen: How can the message of saving time help people reduce food waste?
Moreno: Saving time is also a complicated issue because some people engage in “time-deepening” activities to save or shift time. Those activities have been linked to instances of over-purchasing and other behaviors that are linked to wasted food.
My one piece of advice isn’t a specific action or behavior that people can undertake. Instead, if you want to reduce how much food you waste, think about what are the most wasted items in your household and why. And, make sure that any changes you want to make align with your household priorities and lifestyle.
Nguyen: Food storage can lead to food waste, and we know that consumers may be confused about date labels on food. Is this a big problem?
Roe: I’ve seen estimates that up to 30 percent of home food waste could be attributed to misunderstanding of date labels and the group ReFED ranks this as one of the most potentially consequential changes in terms of reducing food waste.
We need a campaign that really helps consumers understand that, for most foods, the date is the manufacturer’s best guess for when product quality will begin to degrade, and not related to food safety. Then for those few foods where there is a safety issue (ready-to-eat meats, soft cheeses and a few other items where there is a chance of listeria and similar pathogens but no cooking involved), here the date indicates safety. This is where consistent, universal labeling phrases will be crucial to ensure people put the products in the right category and act accordingly.
Nguyen: What’s the best way to provide consumers with information about food date labeling?
Roe: The presence of a few items with real safety issues makes this a difficult education campaign because you need ‘If A then B, but if C then not B’, which is tougher than some public information campaigns.
Moreno: In terms of messaging about various topics related to reducing wasted food, many people that I have interviewed have said that getting information is the grocery store would be ideal for them because they are already thinking about food and are in the mindset to get that information, whereas, they would be less compelled to engage with the information if they received it via email or another method.
Nguyen: In the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and The Ohio State University survey, some 76-86 percent of people say they waste less food than the average American. Why do people think they waste less than they do?
Roe: It is a natural tendency to think you are slightly above average when it comes to x, y or z positive activity. Perhaps it is further compounded because very few people (a) know how much food they are wasting and (b) even if they did know this, they don’t have a benchmark against which to compare it.
TK: Oh yes, I know that everybody thinks they are above average when it is comes to food waste (and everything else, am I right?) - note the research that says 76% to 86% of people believe they waste less food than the average American - but I speak the truth. For all those researchers desperately looking for consumers with a handle on preventing food waste, start with Mrs. Karst in Kansas City. There is none better.