The Connection Between Food Literacy and Food Waste

Food literacy is considered by many in the world of food and nutrition to be an important strategy to enable healthy eating and reduce risk of obesity and chronic disease. Recent literature suggests that the positive impacts of improving food literacy may extend even broader, into the realm of food waste reduction. The question I hope to explore in this post is whether improving food literacy can assist with decreasing household food waste.

First and foremost, what exactly is food literacy?

Although an exact and commonly agreed upon definition is unavailable, food literacy is described by the Food Literacy Centre as “understanding the impact of food choices on one’s health, environment, and economy.”

Pertaining more specifically to food waste, Farr-Wharton, Foth & Choi (2014) define food literacy as “the degree to which past experiences and acquired knowledge impact a consumer’s food consumption and wastage practices.” Food literacy is ultimately the knowledge and understanding that we have of food and how it can be used to meet our needs.

Some would argue that when exploring ways to reduce household food waste, improving food literacy is crucial. The logic is clear, if consumers have a greater understanding of how food choices impact their health, environment and bank accounts, they would likely waste less food.

Let’s take a closer look.

Food waste occurs within many different yet interconnected practices of daily life, from shopping for and storing food to cooking and eating (Schanes, Dobernig, & Gözet, 2018).  Improved food literacy has been shown to assist with the development of cooking and eating practices that are less wasteful. Those who have a greater degree of food literacy are better able to plan meals, estimate portion sizes and cook more spontaneously, perhaps based on what items are left in the fridge – a practice that requires time, knowledge and cooking skills (Schanes, Dobernig, & Gözet, 2018). An essential part of food waste reduction is knowing how to creatively use up ingredients while cooking to keep them from going to waste – a practice that improved food literacy could certainly support.

It is believed that as a population, we have lost a great deal of both food literacy as well as basic cooking skills. It is possible that this decline has contributed to the current rise in food wastage.

Moving on to the second definition for food literacy above: how might past experiences influence wastage practices?

The answer is quite intuitive. Have you ever had a really bad experience with a particular food? Sour milk discovered mid-swig, mouldy cheese tucked into a sandwich or worse yet, a bad bout of food poisoning from a particular food? These kinds of negative experiences with particular foods can lead to taste aversions, over-sensitivities and repeatedly disposing of food prematurely “just to be safe”.

If food literacy is based both on consumers’ acquired knowledge and past experiences with food, interventions for both aspects should be implemented. So, what are some tangible effects we can have on food waste reduction through food literacy promotion?

Improving cooking skills is identified in a paper by Pearson, Mirosa, Andrews, & Kerr (2017) as an expert recommendation to reduce household food waste. Furthermore, work should be done to support positive experiences with food, especially early in life  (see: Rainbow Plate and The OHEA Food Literacy Initiative for some local examples). Finally, educating consumers about safe food practices to prevent negative experiences with food would also be helpful.

Ultimately, there is some evidence to show that improving food literacy could assist with household food waste reduction. However, this remains a relatively small “piece of the pie”. Food waste behaviours are motivated and influenced by each individual’s values, awareness, attitudes, household dynamics, lifestyle and convenience – among many other factors – making it a complex problem to solve. That being said, moving forward it could be useful to see more collaboration between those working to improve food literacy, and those working to reduce household food waste generation.

References

Pearson, D., Mirosa, M., Andrews, L., & Kerr, G. (2017). Reframing communications that encourage individuals to reduce food waste. Communication Research and Practice, 3(2), 137–154. https://doi.org/10.1080/22041451.2016.1209274

Schanes, K., Dobernig, K., & Gözet, B. (2018). Food waste matters – A systematic review of household food waste practices and their policy implications. Journal of Cleaner Production, 182, 978–991. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2018.02.030

Farr-Wharton, G., Foth, M. & Choi, J.H. (2014). Identifying factors that promote consumer behaviours causing domestic food waste. Journal of Consumer Behaviour, 13, 393-402. https://doi.org/10.1002/cb.1488

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Shaping the Canadian food waste conversation

This blog post discusses our team’s recently published peer-reviewed article. For the full article, please visit this page.

As we have discussed in previous blog posts, food waste is now recognized around the world as a pressing environmental, social and economic issue. Although food waste occurs at all stages of food production and consumption, some estimates suggest that up to 50% of food waste in Canada is generated at the household-level. As awareness around food waste grows, pressure is building to develop effective and timely solutions.

However, evidence-based suggestions and high-quality food waste data remain relatively scarce. Without a solid foundation and understanding of food waste, how can we inform narratives that encourage consumer behaviour change? So far, there is little academic literature that systematically observes household food waste generation in a Canadian context.

Our interdisciplinary team from various departments across campus sought to fill this gap by conducting a study among families with young children living in Guelph, ON.

Study Overview

Throughout the study, all families were asked to keep track of every food purchase receipt – from grocery stores and farmers markets to restaurants and take-away establishments – anywhere that food was purchased. Throughout this period, we collected each families’ household waste including their recycling, garbage and organics. This waste was then audited by a team of very dedicated (and brave!) graduate students in the first year, and by a professional audit company the second year. Each individual food item was separated, recorded and weighed. All food items were also classified as being either avoidable or unavoidable. For example, a whole banana would be peeled, and the peel would be considered unavoidable, whereas the actual banana would be avoidable. Our focus was on the avoidable portion of food waste – any food that was at some point edible. In the end, we had 316 unique avoidable food items. It was this list that formed the basis of our subsequent analysis.

What did we find?

Overall, the average household in our study generated approximately 2.98kg of avoidable food waste per week. Fruits and vegetables made up two thirds of this waste, followed by breads and cereal making up about a quarter of total waste.

That being said, it can sometimes be difficult to visualize food waste in terms of a weight value. In order to further contextualize these results, we examined the dollar value, nutritional losses as well as environmental impacts of what was thrown away.

In our study, one week of avoidable household food waste represented…

3,366 calories.

This is the recommended daily caloric intake for 1.7 children or 2.2 adults. This means that the average household in our study could have provided an additional five adult meals, or 7 child meals based on the edible items they wasted. The items wasted also represented significant losses of fibre, magnesium, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, vitamin C and vitamin A – all nutrients that are often consumed below recommended intake levels in Canada. Weekly wasted food represented 2.3 servings of fibre, 2.5 servings of vitamin D, 1 serving of vitamin B12, 4.8 servings of vitamin C, 1.9 servings of vitamin A, 0.9 servings of calcium and 1.6 servings of magnesium.

In this case, wasted fruits and vegetables represented a significant missed health opportunity.

$18.01.

An extra $18 a week in a family’s pocket could go a long way!

23.3 kg of CO2.

This equates to 1.2 tons of carbon dioxide which is equivalent to one quarter of the emissions from a car being driven for a year, or 2.8 barrels of oil consumed.

6.7 m2 of land and 5000 L of water.

Consider that the average 5-minute shower uses 35 liters of water. Wasted avoidable food items represent close to 143 showers per week!

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What does this mean?

These multiple valuation frameworks provide different means of communicating the impacts of food waste to both policy makers and the public at large. Our hope is that these new perspectives, based on detailed observations of family food behaviours rather than estimations derived from system-wide data, will enable more informed and urgent conversations around food waste in Canada.


Article Reference:

von Massow, M., Parizeau, K., Gallant, M., Wickson, M., Haines, J., Ma, D. W. L., … Duncan, A. M. (2019). Valuing the Multiple Impacts of Household Food Waste. Frontiers in Nutrition. Retrieved from https://www.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fnut.2019.00143

#foodwaste #Canada #households #valuation #health #economic #environmental

Trash Talk Post 4: ‘Nudging’ Food Waste Reduction

‘Nudge theory’ is a behaviour change approach initially presented by economist Richard H. Thaler and Law Professor Cass R. Sunstein in their popular book “Nudge – Improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness”.

Thaler and Sunstein (2008, p. 6), describe a nudge as:

“any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates. Putting the fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.”

This “choice architecture” represents all outside forces that may subtly guide individuals’ decisions. Based on this theory, behaviours may be altered by changing the nature of this environment. This manipulation is called “libertarian paternalism” and is meant to improve people’s choices, and their associated outcomes, while also allowing individuals to maintain their freedom of choice.

This theory has been widely applied in nutritional research. Interventions that change the choice architecture of the subject, while maintaining their autonomy, have been developed and tested in order to assist consumers in making healthier food choices.

Given the overlap between food waste prevention behaviours and general food-related choices, it seems likely that nudge theory could also be used to prevent food waste generation at the household-level. The habitual and unreflective nature of food waste behaviours make them highly suitable for nudge-based interventions. However, before getting into this concept more, it is interesting to first consider some of the literature examining nudge theory and healthy food choices.

‘Nudging’ Healthy Food Choices

In a meta-analysis conducted by Arno & Thomas (2016), nudge strategies were found to successfully improve nutritional choices. Chandon and Cadario (2018) build on this concept further by categorizing and labelling the most common nudge interventions developed. Based on this analysis, nudges were broken down into three broad categories.

  1. Cognitive

Cognitive nudges work by providing consumers with information and trusting that they will use it to make better choices. An example of this could be making the healthy option more visible. This could be done by including calorie count or nutrition facts on a restaurant menu. These kinds of nudges can be further improved by adding some context, known as evaluative labelling, such as a smiley faces or traffic colours.

Although cognitive (also known as informational) nudges certainly have merit from an educational and ethical standpoint, they have been found to be only a quarter as effective as behavioural nudges.

  1. Affective

Affective nudges make more of an appeal to our emotional sides by making healthy food sound more exciting or appealing. Using either signs, displays or else verbal encouragement, consumers can be directed to make better choices. An example of this might be arranging an appealing display of fruits and vegetables.

These strategies were found to be moderately successful at improving food choices.

  1. Behavioural

The final category of nudge also happens to be the most effective at changing behaviour. Behavioural nudges work to modify behaviours without necessarily changing what people think or what they want. This method does not require any collaboration or volition on behalf of the individual. An example of this might be enhancements that make healthier options easier to eat – such as pre-cutting fruits and vegetables or perhaps modifying plate size.

Nudge-Based Food Waste Interventions

Can these same theories and types of nudges be used to reduce food waste generation at the household-level? Although research remains relatively limited in this domain, some studies have begun to answer this question.

In a study conducted by Kallbekken and Salen (2013) two simple, non-intrusive nudges were tested in their ability to reduce the amount of food wasted in a hotel restaurant. The first intervention tested was simple; a reduction in plate size offered at the buffet. Based on the above criteria, this would be called a behavioural intervention. Previous research has shown that this simple switch reduces portion size as well as subsequent food waste. The second nudge was a direct social cue in the form of a sign at the buffet encouraging guests to help themselves more than once. This was theorized to create the social norm that it was acceptable to revisit the buffet and thus would discourage people from loading too much on their plates at once. Both of these “nudges” relied on influencing consumption norms through external cues.

The results of these nudges were significant, a 20% decrease in food waste. Although these results suggest some promise, these types of nudge interventions would only be relevant in a context where buffet meals are served.

Another study conducted by Shearer et al. (2017) examines a nudge intervention at the household-level, but specifically in terms of food waste recycling, rather than food waste preventing behaviour.

In a randomised control trial, the effectiveness of using stickers as a visual prompt to encourage the separation of food waste was investigated. The study began with a 15-week baseline period where all waste streams were collected and weighed. Participants were then divided into control and treatment groups. In the treatment group, stickers encouraging source-separation of food waste were affixed to the lids of their waste collection bins. After 16-weeks of follow-up collection and weighing post-treatment, researchers found a significant increase in food waste recycling in the treatment group and no change in the control group. This change was found to persist long-term.

The authors conclude the article by suggesting that a small nudge in the form of a sticker prompt may have a sustained impact on food waste recycling rates. This is a simple, feasible and relatively inexpensive behaviour change intervention. However, one can argue that the behaviours required to prevent food waste, rather than divert it, remain quite different. Therefore, this kind of intervention may have less success in preventing household food waste.

Finally, a recent study conducted by von Kameke & Fischer (2018) takes a first exploratory analysis of the possibility of nudge interventions to reduce household food waste. Using a questionnaire, researchers sought to better understand consumers’ preferences and interest in changing their food waste behaviour. Results suggest that respondents were open to behaviour change and were interested in learning more about the topic. Authors use these results to indicate that nudging could be a suitable tool for reducing household food waste. However, they are unable to report on the actual efficacy of the nudging approach as no intervention was implemented.

Further research should build on these results by testing the nudging approach through intervention studies that measure actual food waste before and after the implementation of nudges

In summary, there is evidence to suggest that behavioural nudges may be the most effective at encouraging behaviour change and thus should be more thoroughly examined. However, based on the presented research the question remains; can nudges be effective at preventing food waste at the household-level?


References

  • Arno, A., & Thomas, S. (2016). The efficacy of nudge theory strategies in influencing adult dietary behaviour: A systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Public Health, 16(1), 1–11. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-016-3272-x
  • Cadario, R., & Chandon, P. (2018). Which healthy eating nudges work best? A meta-analysis of field experiments. Appetite, 130, 300–301. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2018.05.170
  • Kallbekken, S., & Sælen, H. (2013). “Nudging” hotel guests to reduce food waste as a win-win environmental measure. Economics Letters, 119(3), 325–327. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.econlet.2013.03.019
  • Shearer, L., Gatersleben, B., Morse, S., Smyth, M., & Hunt, S. (2017). A problem unstuck? Evaluating the effectiveness of sticker prompts for encouraging household food waste recycling behaviour. Waste Management, 60, 164–172. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2016.09.036
  • von Kameke, C., & Fischer, D. (2018). Preventing household food waste via nudging: An exploration of consumer perceptions. Journal of Cleaner Production, 184, 32–40. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2018.02.131

Trash Talk Post 3: Technology to Reduce Household Food Waste

This post was originally posted on FoodFocusGuelph and is part of a four part series on household food waste.

 

Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) or Human Machine Interface (HMI) is a growing area of research that has begun addressing issues related to ecological sustainability. Given the environmental impacts of food waste, some researchers have begun developing technologies that seek to reduce household food waste generation.

From fridge cameras to “smart” bins, a new era of food waste technology is emerging. However, prior to being implemented on a large-scale, it is important to assess and test these technologies with consumers. In this blog post, I take a look at three studies exploring new technologies designed to reduce household food waste.

Negotiating Food Waste: Using a Practice Lens to Inform Design 

Ganglbauer, Fitzpatrick, & Comber (2013) conducted a study to first better understand household food waste behaviours, and to then test a novel technology designed to reduce food waste. A relatively small-scale study, 14 households were recruited for interviews and house tours to observe and measure food waste generation. Next, 5 households had a fridge camera installed for one month to assess its ability to reduce food waste.

Dubbed the FridgeCam, this technology involves a mobile phone attached to the inside of a refrigerator door. For every second the fridge door is open, an accelerometer sensor in the phone triggers the camera and several pictures are taken and uploaded directly to a dedicated webpage. Users can then access the latest 15 captured photos either through their smart phones or on their computers.

Researchers expected the app to be most often accessed via mobile devices in order to allow users to access the information on the go – perhaps while shopping or meal planning. However, far more often, users accessed the FridgeCam on desktop devices in order to ensure it was still working, to show the program to others or else as a memory aid prior to going shopping. Although the device was not used as expected, it assisted in demonstrating the reality of everyday integrated practices and where values within food management, consumption and disposal were acted upon.

Designing beyond habit: opening space for improved recycling and food waste behaviors through processes of persuasion, social influence and aversive affect

In another novel study, Comber & Thieme (2013) investigated the effects of a garbage bin camera designed to promote conscious reflection on waste disposal intentions and behaviours through social influence and aversive effect. In this context, waste was viewed as a habitual behaviour that can be interrupted and over time, altered.

The BinCam is a two-part system where a mobile phone is attached to the lid of a kitchen garbage can. When the lid is closed, the device’s accelerometer is triggered and takes pictures of the waste. These photos are then uploaded to a Facebook page and can be immediately viewed by all BinCam members. This Facebook platform was designed to leverage participant engagement and social influence. The second part of the technology enabled the tagging of the number of both recyclable items and the number of food items. Using this, improvements in waste behaviours were also tracked and visual feedback was provided to each household.

The technology was designed to specifically target individuals between the ages of 18-35 who are typically under-aware of recycling issues. However, in this sample the particpants claimed to already be very aware of recycling issues. Researchers believed this bias resulted in little behaviour change. Rather than actually changing behaviour, the technology enabled increased self-reflection on waste disposal practices.

Fridge Fridge on the Wall: what Can I Cook for Us All? An HMI study for an intelligent fridge

In a study conducted by Bucci et al. (2010) a new Smart Fridge product was researched and developed. Viewed as an intersection between sociology and technology, the goal was to have a technology that seamlessly integrates into everyday life and supports users in their daily tasks.

Screen Shot 2019-08-05 at 1.17.14 PM

“In this scenario the user is at the supermarket but she forgot the shopping list. She requested a real-time updated list to her fridge and received it by an sms on her mobile phone” (Bucci et al. 2010)

Referred to as the ZmartFRI, the smart fridge technology is a coupled display system between a fridge and the user’s mobile device. Meant to become a family information hub, the fridge is able to alert users to product expiration dates, suggest recipes based on foods that are available or about to expire, fill in and send by SMS or email the house’s shopping list and send and post messages for the house residents. The ZmartFri is able to do all of this via a RFID antenna and a reader inside to read each product that has a smart label attached to it. Although the prototype is still virtual, it represents a promising avenue for further research.

It seems technology is well on its way to facilitating improved awareness and conscientiousness of waste disposal practices. Although it is difficult to asses their ability to actually alter food waste practices based on the study design of the presented work, this area presents promising avenues for future research.

References

  • Bucci, M., Calefato, C., Colombetti, S., Milani, M., & Montanari, R. (2010). Fridge fridge on the wall: what can I cook for us all?, 415. https://doi.org/10.1145/1842993.1843093
  • Comber, R., & Thieme, A. (2013). Designing beyond habit: Opening space for improved recycling and food waste behaviors through processes of persuasion, social influence and aversive affect. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, 17(6), 1197–1210. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00779-012-0587-1
  • Ganglbauer, E., Fitzpatrick, G., & Comber, R. (2013). Negotiating food waste. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction, 20(2), 1–25. https://doi.org/10.1145/2463579.2463582

Trash Talk: Post 2 – Elements of Successful Interventions

This post was originally posted on FoodFocusGuelph and is part of a four part series on household food waste.
          Once the drivers of household food waste are better understood (see last week’s blog post for more on this), it is time to consider the design and implementation of interventions. Both practitioners and academics around the world have begun tackling this difficult task. From awareness-raising efforts to the installation of fridge camera technologies, researchers are creatively designing and testing methods to reduce household food waste.
          Before diving into the details of these various interventions, I would like to discuss some behaviour change elements identified in the literature that can contribute to an intervention’s overall success.
Motivations Vary
          First and foremost, it is important to keep in mind that motivations for managing household food waste can vary greatly. Some people are compelled by messages highlighting the economic costs of food waste, while others respond more strongly to messages highlighting the environmental repercussions. These motivators are shaped by several factors from age and income to values and priorities. Thus, when designing interventions it is important to recognize that no one message will work for everyone and that every message should address different motivators.
Convenience is King
          In order to be effective, suggested behaviour change has to be convenient for people to implement. This means providing the structural conditions required to facilitate the target behaviour. One example of this can be found in a study conducted by Bernstad (2014) where two interventions were designed to encourage food waste source separation rates. The first was an informational campaign aimed at increasing participants’ knowledge of source separation. The second intervention was the installation of a food waste container in participants’ homes. The results are perhaps somewhat unsurprising, the informational campaign had no effect on the target behaviour, but providing better equipment significantly increased source separation of food waste. This emphasizes both the importance of convenience as well as the fact that it takes more than information alone to facilitate behaviour change. Which brings us to our next point….
Information Alone is not Enough
          In a systematic review of consumer food waste reduction and prevention interventions, Stöckli, Niklaus, & Dorn (2018) concluded that informational interventions alone are ineffective at changing consumer behaviour. Given the practices that cause food waste are deeply intertwined in the routines and habits of everyday life, they are not easily influenced by only providing best-practice information.
          However, informational campaigns can be successful when they address a specific behaviour not yet being performed, or else when paired with other intervention types. For example, strategies that are designed to support related prevention practices, rather than only the waste itself, can be more successful at fostering behaviour change. Additionally, for information campaigns to be more successful, Stöckli, Niklaus, & Dorn (2018) suggest the target behaviour must be strongly supported by related social norms. This is a challenge in the case of food waste as social norms can be at odds. Although research suggests that many feel guilty about food waste, there also exists a general normalization of waste in North America. Until all related social norms shift towards viewing food waste as being unacceptable, informational campaigns on their own may have limited success.
Reality Check
          The literature on food waste suggests that people are not aware of how much food they actually waste. Therefore, it is important to gently confront people with the reality of their food practices. Certainly, we all aspire to do better and social-desirability bias can lead us to exaggerate desired behaviour. However, facing the reality of our behaviour is an important first step to change. Along these lines, interventions should seek to address any denial of responsibility for the food waste problem.
Avoid Shame and Blame
          That being said, food waste in an emotionally-complex issue. Thus, it is important to provide feedback to participants without the use of shame and blame. Given food waste is often the result of competing values, interventions should shift away from messages with a moralistic stance that induce guilt. We must respect that no one actually intends to waste food. Rather, it is often the result of various behaviours and moments of consumption occurring before food actually becomes waste.
Behaviour Change is Complex
          In some ways, the stars must align to facilitate behaviour change of any kind. There are many elements to consider – skills, knowledge, facilitating conditions, attitude shifts, etc. In order to better understand this process, the Theory of Planned Behaviour is often used to explain food waste behaviour. This model identifies a gap between intention and action. This suggests that although people intend to reduce their food waste, their actions do not always follow suit. Based on this concept, interventions targeting only intention to reduce food waste will have a limited effect on behaviour. However, interventions that provide support for this intention-behaviour gap will have an increased likelihood of success.
          Bridging this gap can be difficult and to some extent, interventions must encourage change, without actually changing much. Along these lines, Hebrok and Boks (2017) have suggested the following;
“A successful design intervention will contribute to nudge people to reduce their food waste, perhaps without them having to change their attitude, be educated or raise their effort greatly.”
Intervention Types
          Current interventions have been building off some of these concepts. As a result, there are four primary categories of interventions designed to reduce consumer food waste;
  1. Technology that helps people plan their food purchases and consumption while keeping an overview of food they have at home.
  2. Packaging and storing solutions that extend product shelf-life.
  3. Information and awareness campaigns.
  4. Systemic change to the food system through the development and implementation of policy.
Stay tuned for next week’s blog post where I’ll discuss some specific interventions in more detail!
References

Trash Talk: Post 1 – Understanding Household Food Waste

This post was originally posted on FoodFocusGuelph and is part of a four part series on household food waste.
Trash Talk: A Mini Series on Household Food Waste
Overview
          Food waste is now recognized around the world as a pressing environmental, social and economic issue. Although food waste occurs at all stages of food production and consumption, some estimates suggest that up to 50% of food waste in Canada is generated at the household-level. The significance of this issue has resulted in food waste being a focus for regulation, interventions, policy, and awareness-raising efforts in Canada.
          As researchers continue to examine both the scale of the food waste issue alongside its myriad of associated impacts, it is important to also consider consumers’ perspectives and how we might intervene. In this four post series, I will explore various concepts from the academic literature related to household food waste and intervention designs.
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Post 1: Understanding Household Food Waste
          Household food waste is a difficult issue to study as it is a complex, multi-faceted problem that cannot be tied to one single variable. Therefore, it is important to develop a holistic understanding of food waste prior to considering and seeking solutions.
Food waste has been described by Ganglbauer, Fitzpatrick, & Comber (2013) as being
“the unintended result of multiple moments of consumption dispersed in space and time across other integrated practices such as shopping and cooking, which are themselves embedded in broader contextual factors and values”.
          Household food waste occurs at all stages of food acquisition and consumption; from planning and shopping to storing, cooking, eating, and managing leftovers. Because food waste is the result of several interacting activities, there exists a separation between the activity and its consequences (Quested, Marsh, Stunell, & Parry, 2013). Furthermore, many of these behaviours are habitual and have a significant emotional component. For example, the household’s primary shopper might purchase an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables, a child’s favourite food, or an item on sale – all with the intention of consuming them. However, this may be more food than the household can consume before it goes bad and thus, ends up being wasted.
          The separation between activities that result in food waste and their consequences can lead to consumers having inaccurate perceptions of their food waste behaviours. When asked how much food waste they generate, one study found that participants actually underreported the amount by up to 40%. Although many accept that some food waste occurs within their households, they tend to view themselves as not significantly contributing to the problem.
          The social desirability bias whereby people are reluctant to see themselves as someone who wastes more food than others may shift their perceptions. Finally, facing the reality of their food waste generation may bring up many negative emotions. In interviews, participants have associated food waste with guilt, embarrassment, frustration, annoyance and disgust.
          These emotions may result from existing social norms around food waste. The belief that food waste is bad or unethical is a common sentiment among consumers. This belief tends to influence stated intentions around food waste. However, actually conducting the desired behaviour, prevention or mitigation of food waste, tends to be done in private. Managing food waste is much less visible than other pro-environmental behaviours such as recycling, walking to work or using a reusable coffee mug. Although social norms influence intentions around food waste, It is possible that because the behaviour is less visible, social norms may play less of a role in facilitating actual prevention and reduction strategies.
          In essence, we are talking the talk, more than we are walking the walk. When it comes down to actually preventing food waste, emotions, habits, inaccurate perceptions, and an overall normalization of waste in our society tend to outweigh waste prevention behaviours.
          This disconnect between attitudes and action is a central concept in the theory of planned behaviour and is often used to explain food waste behaviours. Known formally at the intention-behaviour gap, this concept highlights the difference between what people say they do, and what they actually do.
          This theory has led some to believe that household routines are a better predictor of food waste generation than individuals’ stated intentions (Stöckli, Niklaus, & Dorn, 2018). An example of this is one likely many of us can relate to. In the literature, it is referred to as the “maturation effect” whereby leftovers are placed in the fridge, and left until they ‘mature’. At this point, they are no longer edible and are suitable to be thrown out. Because of the leftovers’ eventual demise into a mouldy mess, there is less guilt associated with its disposal. We don’t pack up leftovers with the intention of eventually throwing them out, the hope is that they will be consumed. But when that doesn’t happen, we let them linger for longer until they are past the point of no return and we can more easily justify the waste.
          Food waste may also be the result of our society’s recent shift from a state of scarcity, to one of abundance. The year-round availability of a variety of foods, at mostly affordable prices, has led consumers to believe they should be able to eat what they want, when they want it. This freedom of choice is highly-valued among North American consumers. The desire for flexibility and choice is deeply embedded in the consumer identity and can at times, outweigh pro-environmental behaviours like preventing food waste.
          As a result, consumer values attributed to food are often incompatible with values triggered in the management of food and food waste. An example of this is the “Good Provider Identity”. In this case, individuals prioritize having enough food available, and often more, ‘just in case’. This desire can be motivated by the belief that they must provide for their family a variety of healthy and fresh foods that everyone will enjoy. This can quickly overshadow intentions to minimize food waste, even though this outcome can also result in guilt and can be perceived as an inability to effectively manage a household. This example demonstrates one of the ways in which Individuals make complex negotiations within competing values and practices.
          The intention of this post was to review some of the concepts and theories surrounding household food waste. Based on the literature, it is of critical importance to understand everyday practices around food and how they are connected to food waste. The marked habitual and emotional nature of food necessitates sensitivity when addressing this issue and designing interventions.
          In my next blog post, I will discuss some strategies for designing effective and appropriate interventions on household food waste. Until then, please review the references below for more information on household food waste.

Data Decisions and Researching Food Waste

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There’s no way around it: food waste is a complex, multi-faceted problem. The various drivers and contributors to this issue are both diverse and prevalent.

Perhaps as complicated – if not more – is trying to study this topic.

When considering the food waste problem, a good starting point is to assess the reality of the situation. How bad are things…really? Answering this question may seem an obvious first step. However, getting good data is far from easy.

In this post, I’m going to discuss some of the different methods we commonly see in the literature for quantifying food waste.

Up first are Consumer Surveys.

A common and budget-friendly method of assessing an issue like this is to design a survey aimed at addressing specific research questions. However, there are some significant drawbacks to this method.

For example, a survey conducted in the United States looking at consumers’ reported awareness, attitudes and behaviours surrounding food waste found some interesting results. Among their participants, they observed widespread self-reported awareness and knowledge about food waste to be an issue. Additionally, approximately three-quarters of respondents stated that they waste less food than the average American (Neff, Spiker, & Truant, 2015).

Does this mean that the remaining one-quarter of Americans – apparently not surveyed – are indeed responsible for the majority of food waste generation in America?

Highly unlikely.

What’s more likely is one of two options, both of which the literature identifies as commonly contributing to inaccurate consumer perceptions of food waste.

First and foremost, we see in the literature that food waste is the result of both conscious and unconscious behaviours. It is quite possible that consumers simply are not aware of just how much food they waste, and are therefore unable to report on it accurately. Furthermore, a study conducted by our research group in Guelph, ON found, through a series of interviews, that consumers are reluctant to identify themselves as someone who wastes more food than others in their social circle (Parizeau, von Massow, & Martin, 2015).

The second theory is that, given the social bias around food waste, participants in surveys are reluctant to tell the truth – especially if the truth is ugly (and when it comes to food waste, it often is). Instead, they will give what they perceive to be the “socially-desirable” response.

This gap between what people say they do and what they actually do has prompted researchers to look for other methods to assess consumers’ food waste.

Which brings us to method #2: Kitchen Diaries.

This method requires households to maintain a daily log of the food waste they generate. Detailed comments such as weight or volume of food waste, time of disposal, destination of waste, state of food, and reason for discard are recorded. This method allows a more fulsome assessment of household food waste and when used alongside a survey can provide some additional demographic and attitudinal details.

Although more accurate and detailed than a simple survey, the self-reporting nature of this method may still lead to some inaccuracies. Under-reporting (be it intentional or unintentional) and recruitment bias are significant limitations to this approach. In fact, a study conducted in the UK using kitchen diaries found that consumers underreport quantities of food waste by up 40% (Quested et al., 2013)! It is also difficult recruiting for this kind of study. The daily logs can be quite labour-intensive and unless the participants are highly-engaged or there is a significant incentive for participation, drop-out rates can be high.

In order to circumvent the issues with self-reporting, researchers have turned to the streets – where lie carts, bins and bags of all shapes and sizes waiting to be examined.

You guessed it, this brings us to option three for food waste data collection: Waste Composition Studies.

Waste composition studies involve physically separating, weighing, and categorizing food waste. This method is useful in overcoming under-reporting issues and participant biases. By collaborating with local waste services, this can be a highly effective and objective method of quantifying food waste.

Inevitably, there remain some limitations with this approach as well. This method only accounts for food waste destinations associated with municipal solid waste streams. Any waste disposed of down the drain or using backyard composting will be missed with this technique. Furthermore, the extensive resources, cost and time as well as strong municipal partnerships required for this method to work well are often barriers.

There are trade-offs with each approach I’ve discussed here. However, the potential to perfect and refine these methods certainly exists. As this area of research grows, we can look forward to better and more accurate data demonstrating the true breadth and complexity of the food waste problem. Furthermore, with improved data collection methods we can better inform interventions designed to promote sustainable behaviour and reduce food waste generation.

References

Neff, R. A., Spiker, M. L., & Truant, P. L. (2015). Wasted food: U.S. consumers’ reported awareness, attitudes, and behaviors. PLoS ONE, 10(6), 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0127881

Parizeau, K., von Massow, M., & Martin, R. (2015). Household-level dynamics of food waste production and related beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours in Guelph, Ontario. Waste Management, 35, 207–217. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2014.09.019

Quested, Ingle, R., Parry, A., 2013. Household Food and Drink Waste in the United Kingdom 2012. WRAP.