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.
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