Approximately 30 percent of the edible food produced in the United States is wasted and a significant portion of this waste occurs at the consumer level. Despite food’s essential role as a source of nutrients and energy and its emotional and cultural importance, U.S. consumers waste an estimated average of 1 pound of food per person per day at home and in places where they buy and consume food away from home. Many factors contribute to this waste—consumers behaviors are shaped not only by individual and interpersonal factors but also by influences within the food system, such as policies, food marketing, and the media. Some food waste is unavoidable, and there is substantial variation in how food waste and its impacts are defined and measured. But there is no doubt that the consequences of food waste are severe: the wasting of food is costly to consumers, depletes natural resources, and degrades the environment. In addition, at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has severely strained the U.S. economy and sharply increased food insecurity, it is predicted that food waste will worsen in the short term because of both supply chain disruptions and the closures of food businesses, which affect the way people eat and the types of food they can afford.
Many factors influence food waste in the United States. Researchers, nongovernmental organizations, federal agencies, and others have focused on reducing food waste, yet relatively little attention and coordination have focused on supporting the consumer in reducing food waste. To build on what has been learned, the Walmart Foundation and the Foundation for
Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR)1 provided funding to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to conduct a consensus study of ways to reduce U.S. food waste at the consumer level.
To carry out this study, the National Academies convened the Committee on a Systems Approach to Reducing Consumer Food Waste, whose members brought expertise in food waste, psychology and marketing, sociology, public health, nutrition, behavioral economics, food systems, urban planning, intervention design, and implementation science. The committee was charged with reviewing pertinent research from the social and behavioral sciences; identifying strategies for changing consumer behavior, taking into account interactions and feedbacks within the food system; and developing a strategy for addressing the challenge of reducing food waste at the consumer level from a holistic, systems perspective.
The committee explored the reasons food is wasted in the United States, including the characteristics of the complex systems through which food is produced, marketed, and sold, as well as the many other interconnected influences on consumers’ conscious and unconscious choices about purchasing, preparing, consuming, storing, and discarding food. Based on its review of evidence about what drives consumer behaviors and the efficacy of interventions designed to alter those behaviors, the committee identified a strategy for reducing food waste at the consumer level, as well as the research needed to support this strategy and future progress. The dramatic effects of COVID-19 on food supply chain operations and consumers’ behaviors may exacerbate many problems associated with food waste, and also present new opportunities; the strategy presented here is broad and adaptable to changing circumstances.
FOUNDATION FOR THE STRATEGY
The body of research that specifically addresses consumer food waste is limited and emerging, so the committee also considered evidence from the study of consumer behavior and ways to shape it in six related domains (energy saving, recycling, water use conservation, waste prevention, diet change, and weight management). This work draws on diverse disciplines (e.g. food science and nutrition, public health, behavioral economics, marketing, sociology, social psychology), and researchers have proposed models and frameworks to explain consumer behavior, some of which have been applied to the study of food waste. The committee identified one of these, the motivation-opportunity-ability (MOA) framework, as especially useful
1 The Walmart Foundation and FFAR made a presentation to the committee at its first meeting about the study charge and their perspectives on the need for the study. They had no other discussions with the committee throughout the study process.
for identifying and analyzing individual behavioral drivers while also taking into account the importance of context2 and habit in driving behavior.
The MOA framework posits that consumers are most likely to act in a particular way when they not only are motivated to do so but also have the ability and opportunity to act on that motivation. This framework proved useful to the committee in understanding how interactions among multiple drivers—including not only individual-level factors but also the actions of others, such as retailers, other food providers, and policy makers—affect how consumers acquire, consume, store, and dispose of food. The framework was also useful for integrating current knowledge about drivers with insights from the research on interventions.
Drivers of Consumer Behavior
Research on specific drivers of food waste at the consumer level is still emerging, but, particularly when considered in light of lessons from research in other domains, it offers some promising insights. Consumer behaviors regarding food acquisition, consumption, storage, and disposal are complex; depend on context; and are driven by multiple individual, sociocultural, and material factors within and outside the food system that interact to produce food waste. Thus, reducing wasted food at the consumer level will require strategies that consider the interactions between consumers’ motivation to change behaviors and their ability and opportunity to change them through both reflective and automatic processes. Although the available evidence base does not yet support prioritization of particular targets for reducing food waste at the consumer level, it does indicate that the 11 categories of drivers listed in Box S-1 show promise as the basis for interventions.
Interventions to Alter Consumer Behavior
Interventions that address the wasting of food at the consumer level have been studied, but the research on these efforts is still relatively new and focuses primarily on increasing motivation rather than increasing ability or opportunity. Research to date does not yet provide the highest level of support for widespread adoption of specific interventions in multiple contexts. Nevertheless, the committee found evidence suggesting that that the approaches listed in Table S-1 are promising and merit further investigation. The committee urges caution in extrapolating to generalized statements about these interventions, both because the efficacy and effectiveness of any intervention will depend on it being well designed, tailored to the context, and well implemented, and because of the importance of considering the elements of the MOA framework.
2 Context refers to the circumstances, conditions, or objects by which one is surrounded.
|With suggestive evidence:
With suggestive evidence:
With suggestive evidence:
With suggestive evidence:
With suggestive evidence:
With suggestive evidence:
a Tier 1 studies met criteria: an intervention was implemented, wasted food was measured, causal effect can be attributed, and statistical analysis was adequate. Tier 2 studies failed to meet at least one of those criteria.
b The committee urges caution in extrapolating the information in this table to generalized statements about the efficacy and effectiveness of these interventions, which will depend on many other factors.
Although the research does not point directly to interventions that can be implemented with confidence across contexts and populations, it does offer important lessons that can be used in the tailoring of interventions to particular needs. For example, consideration of how a particular driver (e.g., psychological distancing) is likely to influence food waste (e.g., by affecting motivation) and the cognitive processes it activates (e.g., reflective or automatic processing) offers clues about other drivers that may also be at work in a given context and, therefore, where to focus intervention efforts. It is also essential to integrate plans for implementation and evaluation into the process of designing an intervention.
Research from the six related domains offers additional insights that have not yet been assessed in the context of reducing consumer food waste but are likely to be useful to designers of food waste reduction interventions:
- Multifaceted interventions that take advantage of more than one mechanism may be more effective than a single intervention alone.
- Characteristics of the context in which a behavior is occurring influence, and may override, other drivers.
- It is critical to understand the cognitive processes, which fall on a continuum ranging from reflective to semireflective to automatic, involved in the behaviors an intervention is intended to modify. Identifying and understanding habitual behaviors is also critical to designing any intervention.
A STRATEGY FOR REDUCING FOOD WASTE AT THE CONSUMER LEVEL
The strategy the committee proposes builds on the efforts of the many stakeholders that are already engaged in efforts to reduce consumer food waste. The strategy identifies three primary pathways to changing consumer behavior and includes recommendations about the responsibilities of the various partners whose participation will be necessary to this coordinated effort to reduce food waste at the consumer level. The three pathways are
- changing the U.S. food environment to discourage waste by consumers;
- strengthening consumers’ motivation, opportunity, and ability to reduce food waste; and
- leveraging and applying research findings and technology to support consumers in food waste reduction.
Pathway 1: Change the U.S. Food Environment to Discourage Waste by Consumers
Implement change and innovation in the food industry.
RECOMMENDATION 1: Food trade associations and their joint alliances (e.g., the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, the National Restaurant Association, FMI-The Food Industry Association, the Consumers Brand Association, and smaller food trade associations) and nonprofit organizations should expand their efforts to reduce food waste by convening an ongoing public–private–academic forum with the goal of coordinating industry efforts. Specifically, this forum should
- assist association members in pursuing evidence-based best practices and interventions to reduce food waste at the consumer level, providing regularly updated written guidance and consultation services;
- encourage association members to evaluate their food waste reduction efforts and publish their findings, and provide tools and assistance for these purposes;
- develop materials to inform members about the impacts of food waste and to characterize the business case, in terms of costs and benefits, of food waste reduction practices;
- support and participate in relevant research;
- create communities of practice in which members can share innovations and lessons learned; and
- work with third-party certifying organizations to include practices that reduce food waste at the consumer level as criteria in their environmental standards, and to encourage members to meet those standards.
RECOMMENDATION 2: With guidance from their food trade associations, manufacturers, retailers, and food service venues should
- develop promotions and other in-store cues that prioritize acquisition of the optimal amount and variety (including frozen, shelf-stable, and perishable) of products rather than prompting overacquisition; and
- implement and evaluate evidence-based strategies that help reduce consumer food waste by combining elements—including presentation of food (amount and variety) to reduce overacquisition and communications targeting consumers—that increase consumers’ motivation, opportunity, and ability to alter wasteful behaviors.
Include food waste reduction in industry certification.
RECOMMENDATION 3: The International Organization for Standardization, the Green Restaurant Association, the U.S. Green Building Council, and other organizations in charge of developing environmental standards for businesses should include practices that reduce food waste at the consumer level as criteria in those standards, and encourage food businesses to modify their practices to meet those criteria.
Develop and harmonize sensible date labeling.
RECOMMENDATION 4: Food industry trade associations, consumer organizations, and other nonprofit organizations should coordinate and advocate for the passage of federal legislation to harmonize the language and standards for use of date labels for packaged food sold in the United States. They should also coordinate efforts to educate the public about the information provided on date labels and how they can use that information to ensure that they neither consume unsafe food nor waste safe food.
Implement state and local policies encouraging behaviors that prevent food waste.
RECOMMENDATION 5: State and local governments should institute policies that reduce the discarding of wasted food. Such policies include (but are not limited to) fees for the removal of municipal solid waste per unit of waste and mandatory organic recycling practices, such as composting. These policies should be integrated with related policies (e.g., on recycling, food recovery), such as those to reduce environmental impact or promote equity-related outcomes.
RECOMMENDATION 6: The Environmental Protection Agency and nongovernmental entities, such as foundations, should support local jurisdictions and states in developing and instituting policies that discourage the discarding of edible food. Actions to this end include providing research, tools, and information and investing in partnerships and forums (e.g., social innovation labs) that bring key stakeholders together to develop feasible interventions that are acceptable to the affected communities.
Pathway 2: Strengthen Consumers’ Motivation, Opportunity, and Ability to Reduce Food Waste
Conduct a national behavior change campaign.
RECOMMENDATION 7: As part of the federal Winning on Reducing Food Waste Initiative, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Food and Drug Administration should lead the development of a centralized platform for a behavior change campaign. This campaign should be designed both to inform the public about the environmental, economic, and social benefits of reducing food waste and tools and strategies for reducing their own waste, and to address nonconscious drivers of food waste, as well as consumers’ ability and opportunity to change wasteful behavior. This platform should be designed to stimulate, guide, and support current efforts at the state and local levels and those led by nongovernmental entities. The platform should incorporate the following elements
- provide resources and easy, everyday tips for reducing food waste;
- make use of a variety of traditional (e.g., books, website, apps) and new (e.g., short media content bursts, short sound bites, multimedia, gamification, refrigerator magnets) tools and tactics;
- use positive messaging;
- provide multiple cues at the food acquisition, consumption, and disposal stages;
- focus on reaching consumers during “teachable moments”;
- use social science research, particularly as related to norms and consumers’ psychological distance from food and food production;
- deliver short, intense, and frequent action ideas and nudges;
- include components and mechanisms that are culturally relevant to various settings and populations, such as food service employees, retail food establishments, students, workplaces, grocery shoppers, and general consumers;
- include provisions for rigorous evaluation of effectiveness and reward for behavior change;
- urge stakeholders to alter social and economic contexts to provide opportunities for behavior change; and
- spur influencers to help alter norms and amplify messages.
Spread and amplify messages about food waste through influencers.
RECOMMENDATION 8: Professional (e.g., the Culinary Institute of America, the Institute of Food Technologists, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics) and community organizations should work with their memberships and with influencers, such as dietitians, state extension specialists, recipe providers, cooking show hosts, chefs, and social media personalities, to promote the use of their platforms to advance consistent food literacy information, provide evidence-based guidance about optimizing the consumption of food and minimizing waste, and help shift social norms by providing information about the positive effects of supporting consumers in reducing waste.
Include instruction and experiential learning about food literacy in education curricula.
RECOMMENDATION 9: Nongovernment organizations (e.g., the World Wildlife Fund) should engage with other appropriate entities (e.g., state departments of education, U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, foundations) in concerted, coordinated efforts to provide K–12, postsecondary, and secondary institutions with appropriate tools and resources and promote their use in instruction and hands-on learning about the social, environmental, and economic impacts of food waste and ways to reduce it.
Pathway 3: Leverage and Apply Research Findings and Technology to Support Consumers in Food Waste Reduction
Support research and technology.
RECOMMENDATION 10:3 Government agencies at all levels and relevant foundations concerned with the problem of food waste should support the proposed food waste reduction strategy by investing in
- research to develop methods for measuring food waste at the consumer level, including the collection of data on food waste, both aggregated and by type of food, and reasons for wasting food in the United States, as part of an overall effort to measure food waste at the national level;
- research and pilot studies that are adequately designed to evaluate interventions for reducing consumer-level food waste and both the intended and unintended outcomes of those interventions, and are integrated with implementation plans;
- training in intervention evaluation and implementation planning for appropriate staff of community-based organizations and graduate students through, for example, an evaluation institute; and
- dissemination of information about the efficacy and effectiveness of interventions, including detailed descriptions of the intervention design and implementation.
Coordination and Partnership in Pursuit of the Three Pathways
The overarching goal of the committee’s proposed strategy is to create and sustain a broad societal commitment to reducing food waste. Leadership and financial support from the federal level will be necessary to stimulate and coordinate the efforts of the multiple stakeholders involved and to support the transition from a society in which attitudes and habits facilitate the wasting of food to one in which the consumption and management of food consistently reflect its value and importance. The improved coordination and cross-sectoral discussions fostered by the new initiative could have multiplier effects and advance solutions and innovations rapidly.
3 This text was revised for clarification since the prepublication release: “food waste reduction initiative” has been changed to “proposed food waste reduction strategy” to refer to the broad, national food waste reduction strategy recommended by the committee, so as not to be confused with the Winning on Reducing Food Waste Initiative. The Winning on Reducing Food Waste Initiative is an existing collaboration of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and is referenced directly in Recommendation 11.
RECOMMENDATION 11: The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Food and Drug Administration should expand the Winning on Reducing Food Waste Initiative by coordinating with key stakeholders at multiple levels and across societal sectors, including state and local governments, nonprofit organizations, foundations, industry leaders, food producers, and others, in efforts to reduce food waste at the consumer level. The federally sponsored initiative should
- be the locus of practical information for the consumer and guidance on the evaluation and implementation of interventions to be disseminated by initiative partners;
- support the development and management of a public clearinghouse for sharing information on current research and evaluation data and on funding opportunities relevant to researchers, funders, policy makers, social marketers, and other stakeholders;
- support research-based interventions that take into account consumers’ motivation, opportunity, and ability to reduce food waste and apply lessons from behavioral change disciplines; and
- work with others in resolving technical challenges, including by developing and publishing standard terminology for research and practice related to food waste.
Table S-2 provides an overview of the potential contributions that stakeholders would make to the committee’s proposed coordinated food waste reduction strategy.
|State and local government||
|Manufacturers, retailers, and marketers||
|Food producers and the agriculture sector||
|Restaurants and other food service providers (e.g., cafeterias at workplaces)||
|Food industry organizations (e.g., National Restaurant Association, FMI-The Food Industry Association, Food Waste Reduction Alliance, Consumers Brand Association)||
|International Organization for Standardization and other standards organizations||
|Professional associations (e.g., the Culinary Institute of America, the Institute of Food Technologists, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics)||
|Influencers (e.g., recipe providers, cooking show hosts, chefs, social media personalities), extension specialists, consumer organizations, community leaders, and other educators||
|Schools, colleges, and universities||
|Innovators (e.g., developers of software and apps)||
|Researchers and academic institutions||
Effective implementation of research-based interventions is an ongoing process that requires evaluation, adaptation to local conditions, and often design modification. The government partners and others who contribute funding for elements of the proposed food waste reduction strategy can ensure that systematic evaluation is built into the effort.
RECOMMENDATION 12: Government agencies and others who fund interventions pursued as part of the proposed strategy to reduce food waste at the consumer level, as well as developers of state and local policies and regulations, should require that the effects of an intervention, policy, or regulation on reducing food waste and increasing consumer capacity to reduce food waste, as well as on other elements of the food system and issues beyond food waste, be evaluated. The results of this evaluation should be peer-reviewed and made available to researchers and the public.
RESEARCH TO SUPPORT INTERVENTIONS AND THEIR IMPLEMENTATION
To sustain the strategy proposed by the committee, ongoing work will be needed to address significant gaps in the knowledge base related to two distinct but interconnected areas: (1) understanding drivers of consumer behavior and best practices for interventions to change that behavior, and (2) understanding how promising interventions can be implemented effectively.
Understanding Drivers of Consumer Behavior and Interventions to Change that Behavior
With respect to the drivers of consumer behaviors related to food waste, the committee highlights the need to expand understanding of consumers and the context for the distribution of food in the United States. Research targets in this area include
- consumer segmentation regarding food waste behaviors and attitudes so that interventions can be targeted;
- assessment of the benefits of reducing food waste for the different sectors of the food industry so those benefits can be communicated to industry leaders and relevant staff;
- identification of gaps in food literacy by population groups and settings so communication and education approaches related to food waste can be tailored and designed to be more effective; and
- understanding of the rapidly changing food industry, particularly supply chain disruptions induced by the COVID-19 pandemic and how the pandemic is affecting food-related behaviors and other outcomes.
It will also be valuable to expand the focus of research beyond the individual consumer. The literature has not yet fully explored drivers of behavior that operate across contexts outside the household, for example, or how behaviors and attitudes related to food waste translate across contexts such as home, restaurants, and work. The committee also believes that more studies of causal, correlational, and intervening drivers and their interplay are needed.
With respect to interventions, the committee noted multiple examples of interventions with promising results that can be further tested across contexts and scales, with rigorous methods, to identify best practices. Future progress in this research area can be supported by
- more long-term follow-up studies;
- studies that include appropriate control groups and other design elements that support robust causal inferences and measurement of waste, rather than intentions to reduce waste;
- integration of the development of intervention and implementation strategies;
- further modeling research, other systems-oriented studies including methods for understanding multifaceted interventions, and qualitative studies; and
- expansion of the research base to encompass diverse population groups, particularly low-income communities, and diverse contexts and different scales.
Understanding How Promising Interventions Can Be Implemented Effectively
Implementation of interventions identified as promising requires careful attention not only to unexpected outcomes but also to such factors as feasibility, capacity, fidelity to the intervention design, cost, and appropriateness to the settings in which the intervention will be implemented. Many of the food waste interventions that have been studied have demonstrated efficacy in experimental settings. However, few of these promising interventions have been evaluated systematically for effectiveness in real-world and large-scale applications. Interventions that demonstrate high levels of efficacy and effectiveness are needed to significantly reduce consumer food waste. Translational research is needed to apply frameworks, methods, and existing evidence from implementation research to food waste initiatives. Research that integrates intervention development with implementation research is needed to identify and refine the most promising approaches so they can be put into practice at broad enough scale to have meaningful effects.