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The Leading Voices in Food

E185: How and why do households waste food?

Hosted by: Norbert Wilson (Duke), Brenna Ellison (Purdue)
November 2, 2022

Did you know that each year the average American family of four loses $1,500 to uneaten food? What’s more, consumer food waste is the largest category of waste sent to landfills. When food is wasted, so is the land, water, labor, and energy that were used in producing, processing, transporting, preparing, storing and disposing of the discarded food. So why does household food waste and plate waste happen? We have two guests today to help us explore this topic. First, Dr. Roni Neff from Johns Hopkins University. Roni studies wasted food, food system resilience, and climate change through a public health lens. Second, we have Dr. Brian Roe from the Ohio State University. Brian focuses on food waste and behavioral and consumer economics.

Roni Neff is an Associate Professor in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s department of Environmental Health & Engineering and Center for a Livable Future. She received her AB from Brown University, ScM from Harvard, and PhD from Johns Hopkins. Previously she worked for 10 years in public health practice and policy at the community, municipal and national levels. She edited the widely-used textbook, Introduction to the U.S. Food System: Public Health, Environment, Equity. Her team is about to publish the guidebook, Food System Resilience: A Planning Guide for Local Governments, developed in partnership with 5 U.S. cities.

Brian Roe is the Van Buren Professor in the Department of Agricultural, Environmental and Development Economics at Ohio State University. Roe attended the University of Wisconsin – Madison where he received a bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Economics. Roe went on to receive a Ph.D. in Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of Maryland. Prior to his employment at Ohio State, Roe worked on policy issues surrounding food safety and health information disclosure as a Staff Fellow at the US Food and Drug Administration in Washington, DC.

Interview Summary

This podcast is co-sponsored by the Recipes Food Waste Research Network Project, led by American University, and funded by the National Science Foundation (2115405).

Norbert: So our first question is to you, Roni. Could you help us understand why food goes uneaten, and why do you avoid using the term food waste.

Roni: Great questions. So I’d like to give a simple answer, but the reality is that waste of food is caused by a whole mess of reasons, all intersecting and reinforcing each other. It’s become part of the fabric of how we operate as a society. It’s part of the functioning of our food system, and it’s our way of life. That makes it challenging to address, and it’s also what makes it very interesting. So Brian and I were on a National Academy of Sciences panel recently that closely reviewed the literature on consumer waste of food. We actually identified 11 distinct factors that shape it. Let me summarize it in two main buckets. First, our food system pushes us to waste through upstream policy and marketing factors that provide us with an overabundance of food. They encourage us to buy or take more than we need, and they leave us with misperceptions about what food is good quality and safe to eat. The second is that even as we don’t like wasting food, with everything else that we care about, it doesn’t necessarily rise to the top of our minds or priorities. So we waste because we forget, we change our plans. We choose not to eat foods we don’t want. We take the path of convenience. I don’t say that to blame or shame us, because we all do it, and our society and our norms push us there. And if you think you don’t, try tracking what you throw out for a week and you’ll see it. But also, shame isn’t productive. The trick is to put in place strategies to help us.

I want to say one other thing about drivers from a public health perspective. In consumer surveys that we’ve done, the top two reasons that people give for throwing out food are concern about food safety and concern about eating food that’s good quality. Of course we don’t want anyone eating unsafe food, but actually the food is often perfectly safe. And sometimes the problem is a lack of knowledge of how to tell it is okay or risk aversion. Date labels play an important role, and we need a national standardization. But also its messages. We in public health have pushed this idea that freshness is the way to convince people to eat healthfully. That’s a disservice. When it’s cooked into a meal, you often can’t tell the difference if it was frozen, if it was a little wilted, it tastes just as good and it saves us money. Let me also answer your question about why I avoid using the term food waste. I prefer the term wasted food because it puts the emphasis on the idea that this is food, it’s not waste. If we catch it before it’s too late, we or someone else could eat it. And especially as we get to talking about recovering food that’s good for people to eat, it’s food, and using the word waste can be harmful.

Norbert: I really do appreciate that definition. That helps us reframe how we think about this challenge that we face and how we can do something differently.

Brenna: Brian, let’s transition to you for a minute. Can you tell us about the economic decision people make when food is wasted?

Brian: It’s not actually just one decision, right. If we think just even at the household level, it’s a whole bunch of decisions. There is this great article a few years back by Laura Block and some of her co-authors, and she talked about the squander sequence, which I think is a very apt description of what’s going on, even in small segments of the food supply chain like the household. We’re thinking about our own situation. We’re thinking about the first economic decision, how much food do I bring in to the home at any given point. And you know, there’s a big fixed cost. You’re getting yourself organized. Maybe you’re taking yourself to the store, you’re setting up your online food delivery. So you’re making decisions and tradeoffs about do I buy a few more items, a few larger sized items, et cetera. You have to make tradeoffs about how much to acquire and bring into the home. Sometimes we lean to the side of safety and buy a little bit more food than we need. And then we’re in our homes, we have all this food there, and we’re thinking about how much do I prepare, and who’s going to be at the table in a particular situation. And again, we’re making tradeoffs about what types of food do I want to prepare, how much do I prepare, is that item, like Roni was saying, is it on the cusp of having a date on its label that’s getting close, do I add that or not. So there’s decisions being made there about how much to actually put onto the plate. And then there decisions about do I finish my plate or I’m trying to lose weight as well. So maybe I don’t eat all the food on my plate, particularly if I’m at a restaurant, and they serve me very large portions. Then I have to make decisions about do I want to wrap that up and bringing that home with me. Or if I’m at home, is there enough there to actually put into the refrigerator. And then of course we’re sitting there, it’s Thursday night, and maybe friends stop over and want to go out to dinner with us. But yet we had food there sitting in the fridge that we were planning to prepare. And we have to make those decisions about tradeoffs, about the spontaneity of the moment, and kind of the perceived fun of that versus what do we do with the food that we’ve already have that might then go unused in our refrigerator.

So there’s this whole sequence of decisions that have to be made, and we’re always being tugged by risk aversion, whether we want to make sure there’s enough food, it’s safe enough, whether we want to not embarrass ourselves socially by not having enough food on hand. Then there’s the convenience of, rather than dealing with all those small bits of leftover in the fridge and whether we can do something clever with them to make those interesting, or just pack it in and order a pizza instead. So there’s just all this whole sequence of decisions that have to be made.

Brenna: That’s really interesting, Brian. I know in our house there are lots of layers of questions in terms of how we go through our food, so thank you for saying that in a bit more detail so people understand deciding to waste is not typically a simple decision on the part of consumers, but it’s one hopefully we can impact. That brings me to my next question. There have been a number of interventions suggested to reduce food waste. Which ones do you think would be most effective?

Brian That’s a good question, and I don’t think there’s overwhelming evidence yet, as we’ve talked about amongst ourselves, and we know there’s just limited good data out there upon which to make these decisions, and even less data to help us evaluate past interventions. But as I’ve thought about this, and I kind of think about that whole squander sequence that we just talked about, and I kind of reflect on some modeling that economists have done in the past thinking about sequential decision processes. There’s this idea of a weakest link technology, where it’s the weakest link that reduces the ability for us to do well. So in the case of food waste, you have to not only do one decision appropriately, but every point in that process of bringing the food into the back of the house until it gets into somebody’s stomach you have to execute in order for that food to actually be ingested and therefore not wasted. In those models, what’s shown is that those last steps are sometimes the most crucial and the most valuable to making sure that the end goal – that is getting the food eaten rather than wasted – takes place. I think focusing on helping consumers at the very end of that process is very critical. And I’ve seen this very clever intervention that was put out there by, of all people, Hellmans. They’re a Unilever company and they make the mayonnaise. They have this very clever kind of gamification where they do a “fridge night.” They kind of challenge people to go into their fridge and make one more meal with the food in their refrigerator each week. They’ve got an app that supports it, and it helps build confidence among consumers to be able to go boldly into the refrigerator and create a recipe that they think will be used and useful and enjoyed by their family. So I think being at the very end of that process is important – so you can make mistakes earlier in that big squander sequence, but there you can kind of play catch up at the end and put together something that will be used and reduce waste at that front. So that’s the one that’s really struck me recently as being very intriguing and I’d love to see even more evaluation of that intervention and how it works out in the field.

Brenna: Absolutely, I’m very curious to know how many people are using that app. It’s an interesting concept.

Roni: Yes!

Brenna: Roni, what perspectives would you like to add in terms of effective food waste reduction interventions?

Roni: Sure, so I would echo all the things that Brian said, and I’ll take it from the opposite end. On the one hand, there are things that are very kind of simple and direct. The flip side of that is that there’s a lot of evidence from a lot of domains of behavior change for a very multifaceted type of intervention and hitting it from as many angles as possible at once. So a lot of the countries where they have been having really good success, often there’s consumer education combined with policy change, and people are hearing about it in schools and they’re hearing about it in communities. So as big and as broad as we can get in terms of how we intervene, it seems like we might be most likely to help shift the lever at a broad perspective as well.

Norbert: Thank you for this conversation on interventions, the ways that policy makers, organizations, communities can actually make a change. So Brian, I have a question for you. You have talked about this example of the gamified app, of sort of like a “Chopped” version online, but I’m wondering how do researchers evaluate if these interventions actually work, and what kind of measurement is really needed?

Brian: Yeah, and just for our listeners who don’t know, Norbert and Brenna do awesome research in this area as well, and are very good experts on measurement as well. So you’ll be familiar with a lot of these approaches, and Roni as well, but yeah, measurement is always a trick. Because people really don’t like to mess around with the things that they no longer want. So measuring waste is always a tricky endeavor and there are different ways to go about it. You can do the very kind of nitty gritty, and try to collect it maybe at the curbside, or maybe convince consumers or processors to collect it in their own buildings, and then have you and your research team go out and dig through it and measure it and weigh it in all sorts of ways. That can be very effective. In the household setting, sometimes, though you don’t get everything because things go down the sink or into your pet’s bowl, or maybe into a compost bin that goes someplace else, so sometimes you miss things there. You can also beg people to measure their waste blow-by-blow, day-by-day through some type of diary. We can try to do things to help them ease the burden of doing this, maybe with a photo-based app or something like that. Or you can do what a lot of people do, and I do some of this myself, which is to ask people to remember types of food and the amounts of food that they wasted over a particular period, perhaps over the course of a week. That can be very effective. But typically, people are forgetful or might be a bit shy about reporting things that they’ve wasted. So a lot of studies suggest that typically people underestimate the amount of waste that they create when using that approach. So there’s probably no perfect approach to doing this, but just understanding the pros and the cons, the strengths and weaknesses of each of those measurement approaches is kind of critical for the researcher to understand what’s the best way that they can go in and evaluate an intervention or get a baseline or understand trends over time.

Norbert: Thanks Brian. I have got to say this sounds so messy. And yes, I mean literally messy, going in through people’s trash, but you really made a really compelling point about how difficult this is, and that there are an array of ways that researchers have tried to measure this. Where do you think concerns for how people want to be perceived fits into this difficulty of measuring, when asking people or trying to even measure physical waste, when people know that they’re being evaluated?

Brian: Yeah, there can be what’s known as reactivity to a measurement approach. The sociological Heisenberg effect, if you will. And so that’s where some of the passive measurement approaches, such as doing curbside audits of an entire neighborhood for example. So you don’t have to worry about privacy concerns because you’ve mixed 40 different households together in one collection of garbage gives you a baseline so that then when you go to the household level, you can kind of estimate the amount of underreporting or reactivity that might be there. There’s some tricks of the trade to be able to back out how much under reporting there might be.

Norbert: Roni, I want to shift gears a little bit, and I want to understand how is wasted food a critical question at the intersection of nutrition, climate change and household economics?

Roni: Great question. So climate change and food security, including nutrition security, are at the top of our list of our most pressing global challenges. As food prices keep rising, households are feeling this strain. So we care more and more about what we can do to stretch the food dollar. The beauty of focusing on wasted food is that it’s one single lever that moves the needle on these multiple issues. It’s not the solution to any of them, and there can be trade offs, but let’s look at the potential impacts.

From a climate perspective, the International Governmental Panel on Climate Change estimated last year that about eight to 10% of our total global human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are coming out of wasted food alone. Not only is it impactful, but wasted food supports the urgency of rapid reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Experts have focused particularly on methane, which is one greenhouse gas, and it’s short-lived and it’s powerful, and it’s key in wasted food, because it comes both from our food production and from food that’s decaying in landfills. So cutting waste of food has been recognized as a key climate strategy because it helps us get to that rapid reduction.

When it comes to nutrition and food security, there’s this intersection because the same strategy, in many cases, can address waste of food and improve food security. So for example, some shared risk factors for poor nutrition and waste would include large portion size and oversupply. Then, when you think about like efforts to bring in healthier food like in school meals, unless the food tastes good enough, the kids won’t eat it. So you lose on both nutrition and waste. Then as we turn to household economics, as was mentioned in the introduction, we’re spending about $1,500 a year for a household of four on food that we’re not eating. So preventing that waste extends our food dollar. Also knowledge that we might, waste of food could also, it does also lead some households to not purchase healthy or perishable foods, especially if they have lower incomes. So it advances nutrition to have strategies to reduce that waste. So one other reason why wasted food is a critical question at the intersection of all these issues is that many of the solutions that advance change on these issues are politically fraught. Generally speaking, wasted food is not. Left or right, like none of us like waste. Everyone is a fan of saving money. So I see where working on wasted food is an opportunity to address these issues with less of those kinds of political challenges and many collateral benefits.

Norbert: Roni, thank you so much for that commentary on the political nature of addressing this. I mean, that is something that lots of people can get behind, and I appreciate how politically fraught our moment is, and I appreciate the way you framed this, and I’m really grateful for you raising the concern of families from low income households and the challenge of food waste and nutrition access and food security. Thank you so much for bringing those together, because I think that’s an under-discussed topic. So Brian, I want to hear your impression or thoughts about the intersection of nutrition, climate change and household economics. So how do you see wasted food as critical to that question around that intersection?

Brian: Yeah, Roni touched on so many great points there. Some others I’ll amplify are that, yeah, really, it’s an accessible topic that people can connect with on many different levels, whether it be the nutrition, whether it be on the environment, climate change, whether it be on municipal issues. Nobody likes to build more landfills. Nobody wants to be by a landfill, and what is 20% of most landfills, it’s typically wasted food. So even at the municipal level it can be something of a rallying point, and something that provides meaningful benefits at that level. At the system level, I think another thing that goes unappreciated is we talk about nutrition, and most people want to focus on, for example, food recovery that is taking food, that might have not found an immediate home in the food system, recovering that, and then redirecting it to others in the food system that might need it. More fundamentally, if we can right size the food system, if we reduce our wasted food from say the one third that we see now down to even 20%, that means we can also push down food prices at an aggregate level. That really helps nutrition, because we know families in need who have difficulties finding the food they need, oftentimes it is a financial issue. Bringing down food prices through reduction of waste can have large positive implications for everybody, including those who are really struggling to meet their financial needs and get stressed by their food budgets. So I think those systematic issues are really something we have to appreciate as well.


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