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The Leading Voices in Food

E231: Insight from a national household food waste study

Hosted by: Norbert Wilson (Duke)
February 27, 2024

If people knew how much food they threw away each week, would they change their food-wasting ways? That’s a question scientists explore in the 2023 State of Food Waste in America report. The research goal was to understand why and how households waste food, and what would motivate them to prevent food waste. In today’s podcast, we’ll talk with MITRE scientists Laura Leets and Grace Mika, members of a team who developed and launched the MITRE Food Waste Tracker app. This is a first of its kind app for households to log information about discarded food and learn ways to save money by reducing food waste. The Food Waste in America study team includes the Gallup Survey Company, researchers from the Ohio State University, the Harvard Law and Policy Clinic, ReFED, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the World Wildlife Fund.

Dr. Laura Leets is an accomplished researcher, teacher, and mentor. She brings 30 years of experience from academic and industry environments.  She currently serves as an innovation lead and senior principal scientist at MITRE. In this leadership capacity, she works with researchers to identify, shape and conduct important, transformative, and impactful projects for government sponsors and the nation. She also serves as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Communication, Culture, and Technology Program and previously spent a decade as a Professor of Communication at Stanford University.  She has been recognized with several top paper and teaching awards throughout her academic career.

Grace Mika, B.S., is a data scientist in MITRE’s Modeling & Analysis Innovation Center, where she has worked on projects for the Center of Disease Control, Internal Revenue Service, Veterans Benefits Association, and the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense, Acquisitions & Sustainment. She is passionate about visualizing data in a clear, accurate, and accessible way. Grace was instrumental in the design of a first-of-its-kind Food Waste Tracker App, which allows users to track waste as it occurs within their homes. Grace holds a B.S. in Applied Math and Psychology from the College of William & Mary and is currently working towards her Masters of Analytics at Georgia Institute of Technology.

Interview Summary

Laura, let’s begin with you. Can you give us a quick overview of why MITRE focused on measuring food waste at the household level and the behaviors?

Laura – In a general sense, Norbert, we know the United States waste 30 to 40% of our food, yet we do not know how much is wasted at the household level. We know that waste occurs along the entire farm to table supply chain, like approximately 15% with farms, 15% at manufacturing, about 20% at stores and restaurants and about 50% in the household. So, given that half the waste happens at the household level, it’s important to measure it. If you can measure it, you can do something about it. Up to this point, people have not had an easy way to estimate their amount of food waste. So, to address this gap, not only did we develop a new way to measure household food waste and Grace will share more about that, but we also provided a baseline measurement of American household food waste.

I would like to really dig in a little bit more. How much food do American households waste, and do you have a sense of what kinds of foods people are wasting?

Laura – Let me start with the amount first. We found that the average American household wastes somewhere from 3 to 4.5 pounds per week. And there’s two ways to measure household food waste. The first is you can focus on the edible or uneaten food. And with this measure, American households waste about on average three pounds per week. Second, you can add inedible food. So, that’s your food scraps, your eggshells. And if you take edible plus inedible food together, then the American households wastes on average about 4.5 pounds per week. Let me give your listeners a couple analogies to understand that impact of that 3 to 4.5 pounds of household food waste. So, let’s say we combine our own household food waste with everyone else’s. The crop waste is large enough to cover the states of California and New York. From a personal perspective, imagine before every meal you scrape off 40% of the food on your plate. If you imagine that in each meal, you’re going to start to understand that the current food waste is massive, and we’re all contributing to it. So that’s the measurement piece. I’m going to pass it over to Grace to discuss the types of food we’re wasting.

Grace – Americans are wasting a wide variety of foods in their homes, but the number one wasted food type is your fresh produce. So, that would be your fruits and your vegetables.

I think this is really important to keep in mind, not only because, of course, fruits and vegetables are perishable, but when we think about healthy diets, many people in the nutrition space are encouraging fresh fruits and vegetables or fruits and vegetables in general. Ao this is a really important finding, and I’m excited to know this. But it’s also important for our listeners to think a little bit more about this. Grace, I would like to learn a little bit more from you. Can you tell us more about the MITRE Food Waste Tracker, the app itself?

Grace – I would be happy to. The MITRE Food Waste Tracker app is meant to be a tool for households who want to understand exactly what’s going uneaten in their home. If you had asked me what exactly I ate yesterday and how much of that went into my trash can, I would have a really difficult time remembering an answer to that question. And that’s for just yesterday, let alone multiple days or weeks ago. Not knowing what exactly goes uneaten would make it really challenging for me to cut back on that waste. So, to solve that problem, our team designed an app which allows for food waste to be logged in real-time. So, right as you’re doing your meal prep or you’re clearing off the dinner dishes or emptying your leftovers out from the fridge. And the app tracks details both about the food itself, like where you got that from and the food group that it belongs to, as well as where, why, and how the food was thrown away.

And you can also track how much waste was produced, and we encourage you to use your hand as a guide to estimate the volume of that waste. So, your closed fist is about the size of a cup of food and your thumb about the size of a tablespoon. The more that you use the app to track, the more you will reveal patterns in the way that you waste. Maybe you find out that you’re optimistically shopping for vegetables that your toddlers at home are just not interested in eating. Or maybe you’re serving up heaping platefuls at dinner time, but then find that you’re not hungry to finish that meal. So learning this will empower you to make small changes in the way that you shop for, prepare and store food to make sure that as little as possible is going to waste.

And if you’re money-minded like many Americans are, you might be especially interested in an app feature which estimates the cost savings that you would experience if you cut back on your waste. So less food in the trash means more money in your wallet and the savings really add up. The average American family spends over $1,500 on wasted food each year. And tracking with the app is fast and simple. For each food that you dispose, you would simply click on the icons that best describe your waste. It would be really easy to get the whole family, even your your kids involved in tracking and thinking about the food that’s going into the bin.

You’ve already touched on a few of these key findings about sort of the top foods that we end up wasting. Are there other findings that you would like to share with us?

Grace – So there are two behaviors that really stood out when it came to producing food waste. The first is simply being willing to eat your leftovers. Personally, I get really excited about leftover nights. It means I get a good home cooked meal with almost no prep work that evening. A lot of us are already doing this. About a third of Americans incorporate leftovers into new dishes and about half of us frequently eat leftovers just as a meal by themselves. Those leftovers add up. We found that households who consistently throw their leftovers away are wasting nearly four times as much as households that eat those up. We also found that households’ understanding of and behavior around date labels plays a significant role in their levels of waste. A lot of us don’t really understand how little date labels actually mean, and how little they’re standardized. Not too long ago I was cooking with a friend, and we were making dinner together and he smelled a bag of shredded cheese and he said, “Oh, this smells kind of funky, but it’s not past his date.” And he added it into the dish. You should actually be doing the exact opposite of that. You should trust your senses over the date label when it seems that something is spoiling. There are some dates that are meant to be safety indications, but the majority are just a manufacturer’s best guess of when food will pass its peak quality. And frequently, thrown away past date food that has no signs of spoilage so this leads to wasting over twice as much food. It can be easy to feel helpless when it comes to wasting food, but it’s surprisingly simple to take control over your waste As we mentioned before, if you’re curious about what sorts of behaviors are leading to waste in your own home, we have an app for that. So, our latest version of the app has new features to help you understand your waste and even get a sense of how much money you could be saving if you cut back on your waste in your home. I highly encourage you to check that out.

I’ve got to say I have done some work on date labels and have found this is an important area of consideration. But also, one where the modification of those date labels may actually help reduce food waste. I’m so happy to hear you talk about the sort of broader set of things that consumers can do to actually mitigate food waste in the household. You got into some of my own personal family issues around what do we do about leftovers, and I will not report this conversation to my family. So, thank you for that, Grace. Laura, I want to go back to you and ask about a big picture question. Why should our listeners reduce their household food waste?

Laura – Norbert, I believe I can make a compelling case for that. This is a rare opportunity when making a small change can have a large positive impact. Let me explain the amazing cascading ripple effect that happens when we reduce our household food waste. We had Grace reminding us with the app, and the first benefit is financial. An average American household can save at least $1,500 a year or $125 a month by reducing food waste. So just focus on that personal financial benefit, and then understand the resulting ripple effects. That first ripple effect is going to impact the ecology. Most of us don’t realize significant resources go into producing food. The USDA reminds us that 50% of our land in America is used for food production and 80% of our water is used to produce that food. When we reduce our food waste, we’re recognizing food as this precious resource, and we are supporting our food production industry. This is really important because America is one of the top food producers in the world.

The next ripple effect impacts food security. Food security is part of national security. When you reduce your household food waste, you are also supporting national security. Next is a societal impact. Reducing food waste allows us to optimize our food and feed more people. And, finally, there is a significant environmental benefit. The number one substance going into our landfills is food waste. As it decomposes, it emits greenhouse gases that cause this pollution blanket to surround the planet. That pollution blanket traps heat and warms the planet. So, when we reduce our food waste, it’s one of the top three activities we can do to reduce warming temperatures and extreme weather events. We all have the ability to combat climate change through our household food waste. These small changes in our food waste – they’re going to result in positive financial, societal, and environmental benefits. It’s such a powerful, impactful decision to reassess your food waste and think about ways you can reduce it.


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