Food lovers may have begun to spot the arresting, bright-white stenciled message “BEST IF USED” on the sides of dumpsters in cities like Austin, Denver, and New York City. The message that food waste matters has been slowly percolating into public perception. Food waste is openly acknowledged not as an externality but a key concern for meal subscription companies and grocery stores. The USDA and the EPA announced goals to reduce food loss and waste by 50% by 2030.
These efforts are the result of years of dedicated work on behalf of non-profits, government agencies, companies, and concerned citizens to increase awareness of food waste. Although studies quantifying food waste have been produced for decades, the 2012 publication of “Wasted” from the NRDC reinvigorated ongoing efforts (and started new ones) to tackle the problem of food waste once and for all. The report consolidated and quantified the astonishing figures on food waste throughout the supply chain– household food waste (25% of what consumers buy goes to waste) and on-farm food waste (insufficiently studied, but potentially quite high). Other staggering figures, such as the EPA’s estimate that 250 million tons of food reach landfills every year, added to the loud wake up call. Entities like ReFED and Further with Food, and campaigns like #savethefood launched in in the wake of these alarming reports to both educate the public and funnel research, capital, and non-profit resources towards solutions. Thanks to this advocacy, in recent years, Walmart announced that they would sell “ugly” produce and services like Imperfect Produce launched, and grocers and distributors voluntarily adopted no-waste policies, to name just a few domestic achievements. Efforts have been taken around the world, particularly in France and the UK to even outlaw food waste by grocers. In this eruption of new efforts, services, and campaigns directed at all stakeholders in the food supply chain, we’re highlighting some existing and emerging trends in consumer products and awareness campaigns that cover food waste, especially food waste at the household level.
Community efforts will continue to play a role in outreach circles, though require high commitment. As has been shown by “Wasted Food: U.S. Consumers’ Reported Awareness, Attitudes, and Behaviors” in PLoS One, 73% of surveyed Americans believe that they waste less than the average household, which is not statistically possible. Action plans as the Food: Too Good to Waste protocol by the EPA, once facilitated by researchers, are quantitative plans designed to be performed by community action groups. These action plans prompt households to measure food waste by weight and identify habits and pain points that lead them to waste. When a community engages together in food waste reduction through shared waste measurements, classes, and workshops, the results tend to be longer lasting. Social food saving takes on other forms in other countries, as well– apps such as Olio or Love Food Hate Waste have helped folks in the UK to either share food or quantify and lower their waste. The collaboration of external parties with who facilitate community food waste studies or community accountability groups represents some of the best opportunities to acutely raise awareness. After all, quantifying all of the food waste in your neighborhood block is one of the most accurate and arresting measurements of food waste available.
An explosion in “new” food media presents a broad opportunity to tie in food waste on social networks. Cooking channels and shows have always been a widely consumed segment of American media. New takes on the traditional celebrity-cook-prepares-meal structure are now populating the scene. Short (under 2 minute) videos that focus on the food (only the hands of the cook are usually shown, with no dialogue) have grown dramatically in popularity with millennials. These video platforms are especially prevalent on social media channels. The Facebook lifestyle channel Goodful is one such example of chef-less cooking and healthy living, and has produced videos on storage methods to preserve foods in optimal conditions as well as general guidelines for determining how long certain foods will last at home. While household food waste itself is not generally directly named, such cooking segments could easily promote tips about leftovers or highlight the packaging waste present in some recipes, additions viewers may see in the coming months. Millennials are some of the most savvy eaters and food purchasers in both restaurants and grocery stores, as referenced in the RMagazine article “Millennials Emerging as a Major Buying Power in Restaurants.” Appealing to millennials and tying in sustainability issues such as food waste using these impactful forms of new media will likely be a developing trend.
Growing numbers of food waste-specific websites online serve as reservoirs of storage knowledge and advocacy materials. Websites such as savethefood.com, a collaboration between the Ad Council and the NRDC, instruct consumers on how to store food items, and have accompanying billboards and street art such as dumpster stencils in select cities and areas. These ad campaigns, with their clean and fresh aesthetic (even on the side of a dumpster) and focus on charismatic megaflora (the noble strawberry) are positive, direct food waste-reduction messages that have reached millions of consumers. Food waste facts were often tied up in disparate government agency reports-now that they are accessible from several reputable sources online, raising awareness is as simple as posting a link.
Convenience models can mask food waste messaging but can reduce waste, an easy decision for those urban dwellers. Food delivery services such as Amazon Fresh and Instacart or automatic food replenishment services such as the Amazon Dash reduce waste from excessive purchasing and may reduce impulse buying, though they do not often directly highlight food waste in their messaging. These services are popular in cities and with busy professionals and young families. Meal subscription kits such as Blue Apron or Sun Basket, who practice their own internal food waste reduction strategies, more explicitly draw connections to food waste in their messaging and recipes. While there may be a greater highlight on food waste reduction, the message of convenience-with-a-side-of-sustainability is working well to subtly raise the profile of food waste while decreasing it.
IoT and smart appliances a narrow but growing segment for wealthier wasters. Smart appliances represent an opportunity for wealthier consumers to reduce their food waste, and often incorporate their positive environmental impacts directly into their messaging. The Samsung Family Hub, or the Whirlpool Zera can prevent or repurpose food waste respectively. They explicitly highlight their role in reducing household food waste to foster adoption.
Behavior change services represent a targeted delivery of food waste awareness materials. Though behavior change is a difficult, seamless solutions that can fit into existing consumer behaviors may be a growing segment to help raise awareness while solving household food management problems. Planning, shopping list, and food management apps can provide users with targeted information about their habits to raise their awareness on how their buying and planning behaviors may contribute to food waste.
Waste repurposing may be a relatively pain-free option for a growing number of families. According to the article “Americans will compost IF you make them,” in Public Works magazine, only 2% of food waste is diverted from landfills via composting. Seventy-two percent of Americans do not compost, but a majority of those non-composters say they would compost if it were made easier. City programs such as mandatory green waste collecting in New York City and Berkeley, or at-home smell-free compost buckets show the buildup of food waste in the home and builds awareness about the importance of smart food management.
Increasing awareness of household food waste helps the entire supply chain
All of the efforts to increase awareness of food waste highlighted above, though generally household-specific, have beneficial impacts throughout the supply chain. Increased awareness of food waste leads to greater demand for food waste reduction technologies in the household, and can lead to greater consumer advocacy to see ugly produce in grocery stores, and greater traceability and transparency of products from farm to fork. Consumers want to be more connected to their and their food system, and food waste advocacy is one way to improve that messaging.
Author-Brianna McGuire. Brianna is the CEO of Foodfully, a company dedicated to eliminating food waste in household and commercial settings