The characteristics of the complex system 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, all contribute to significant wasting of food by consumers. The report thus far has identified some primary drivers of consumer behaviors that could be modified so that less food would be wasted, examined the evidence on interventions undertaken to date to modify those behaviors, and explored relevant lessons from six other related domains. Based on this broad exploration, the committee in this chapter proposes a strategy for reducing food waste at the consumer level. We do not propose a measurable target for this reduction, but support the overall goal of reducing food loss and waste in the United States by 50 percent by 2030, which is consistent with Target 12.3 of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.1
The committee’s proposed strategy targets opportunities to help save valuable food and reduce the profound negative environmental impacts of food waste. This study’s objectives took on greater urgency as we carried out our work because of the strains on individual and government budgets and the food supply system resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. The dramatic shifts in food supply chain operations and changes in consumer behaviors associated with the pandemic may exacerbate many problems associated with food waste, and may also present new opportunities, but the strategy presented here is broad and adaptable to changing circumstances.
The committee’s reasoning about how best to make use of the available evidence began with the motivation-opportunity-ability (MOA) framework, which addresses the importance of the interactions among those three elements in the process of behavior change. This framework provided a basis for considering how the research on drivers of consumer behavior and on interventions designed to modify that behavior can best be exploited to reduce food waste at the consumer level. The MOA framework helped us understand the multiple drivers identified by research and how they interact to result in food waste. It also provided a foundation for identifying categories of behavioral drivers that encompass a range of influences, including context, habit, and other automatic processes, and reflective processes. And the framework helped us integrate the broader lessons from the research on drivers of food waste with lessons from the research on interventions to modify food waste behavior.
Evidence about Drivers of Food Waste
Consumers’ conscious and unconscious decisions about food (that is, those based on either conscious or automatic cognitive processes; see Chapter 1) are only the surface manifestations of a complex array of interacting factors, ranging from highly individual, intrapersonal influences through those that operate interpersonally and at the community and societal levels.
At the societal level, decisions made at every stage of the food supply chain, including by large and small farms and businesses, shape consumer-level waste. Decisions made by other industry players, such as food processers and dealers, retailers, governments, international organizations such as the World Trade Organization, and investors, affect markets, prices, and availability, and those decisions are influenced in turn by the marketing and sales strategies of the U.S. food service and retail industries and many other factors. Thus, the U.S. food supply system is embedded in a global system of social and economic cultures, structures, and policies that all affect many outcomes, including the ways in which consumers acquire, consume, store, and dispose of food.
At the same time, individual consumers are influenced by the information they receive about food from myriad sources and the degree of trust they place in those sources. Some may trust government sources, whereas others may look to social media and celebrity influencers. Consumers are also influenced by social and cultural practices and norms within their varying social networks, as well as their own personal values. Although the diversity of the consumer population makes it difficult to generalize about consumer behavior, researchers have identified many drivers that can
influence behaviors related to food acquisition, consumption, storage, and disposal that affect the amount of food wasted at and away from home. The existing literature has relatively little to say about how various drivers operate across groups or are affected by socioeconomic factors, but the committee found support for 11 summative drivers (or clusters of drivers) that offer promising targets for interventions to reduce food waste:
- consumers’ knowledge, skills, and tools;
- consumers’ capacity to assess risks associated with food waste;
- consumers’ goals with respect to food and nutrition;
- consumers’ recognition and monitoring of their food waste;
- consumers’ psychological distance from food production and disposal;
- heterogeneity of consumers’ food preferences and diets;
- the convenience or inconvenience of reducing food waste as part of daily activities;
- marketing practices and tactics that shape consumers’ food behaviors;
- psychosocial and identity-related norms related to food consumption and waste;
- factors in the built environment (including in household and retail environments) and the food supply chain; and
- policies and regulations at all levels of government.
All of these summative drivers have the capacity to influence at least one of the three elements of the MOA framework (motivation, opportunity, and ability). Many of them affect more than one, and a few affect all three (see Chapter 3).
Evidence about Interventions to Reduce Food Waste
The evidence about interventions that may be effective in reducing food waste at the consumer level was too limited to support definitive conclusions about the overall merit of any of the various types of interventions. Few of the available studies met the committee’s criteria with respect to strength of evidence, and virtually no study assessed how well intervention effects might be sustained across time. The committee therefore urges caution in generalizing from the small existing literature as to the effectiveness of particular intervention approaches. We also emphasize that the effectiveness of any intervention using these approaches or others will depend on its being well designed, tailored to the context and with consideration of the three elements of the MOA framework, and well implemented (see Chapter 6).
Nevertheless, based on evidence from peer-reviewed analyses, the committee identified a list of interventions that are promising and merit further investigation (see Table 4-2 in Chapter 4; see Appendix D for more detail on the available studies). Given the limitations of the literature, this list does not reflect all of the approaches that merit further assessment. In particular, few studies have examined interventions based on a systems approach, that is, interventions that took into account potential trade-offs, cobenefits, unintended consequences or spillover effects (e.g., effects on income inequality or other distributional issues). Also not well represented among the existing peer-reviewed studies—but possibly very valuable—are interventions involving technological developments (e.g., antimicrobial coatings, improved refrigerators).
More work will be needed to build on this research and integrate findings from across disciplines and contexts. Although the research on drivers and interventions does not point directly to interventions that can be implemented with confidence across contexts and populations, it does offer important lessons. That is, considering how a particular driver of behavior (e.g., consumers’ psychological distance from food and its sources) influences food waste (e.g., increasing motivation) and the cognitive processes it activates (e.g., reflective or automatic processing) offers clues about what other drivers may simultaneously be at work in a given setting, and therefore, where intervention efforts might best focus. To identify the relevant drivers for a specific setting or community, designers of interventions could conduct formative research in that community to explore such questions as whether the targeted behavior results from a reflective or automatic cognitive process and which elements of the MOA framework are predominant. This level of analysis can support sound decisions about whether an intervention will be most successful if it focuses on only one driver or if multiple drivers are addressed at once (see detailed examples in Chapter 3).
Taken together, the research on drivers and interventions from both the food waste context and the six related domains highlights the following general points that will be important guides for future efforts to design interventions for reducing food waste at the consumer level. It is important to stress that, as discussed in Chapter 6, intervention design is only the first step; careful attention to evaluation and implementation is also critical.
The value of multifaceted interventions. Research from the six related domains demonstrates that in general, multifaceted interventions—those that take advantage of more than one mechanism—may be more effective than a single intervention alone. Although the food waste–specific research is not yet substantial enough to support a firm conclusion on this point, evidence nonetheless points to the value of integrating multiple intervention types.
Contextual factors influence, and may override, other drivers. A variety of evidence highlights the important influence of contextual factors on behaviors in some of related domains. This observation has been demonstrated in the domains of water conservation and recycling. In the recycling domain, contextual factors, such as the availability of convenient recycling, a bin at home, or space to store items for recycling prior to pickup, have been found to be predictors of waste reduction and recycling behavior and possibly to override other drivers. These findings suggest that contextual factors that change opportunity at the food acquisition, consumption, storage, and disposal stages are similarly likely to affect food waste–related behaviors, independently of motivation or ability.
The value of understanding cognitive processes involved in targeted behaviors. Two primary types of cognitive processing—conscious, reflective, and reason-driven processing and automatic processing—play important roles in consumer behavior. These types of processing interact and are best understood not as binary opposites but as anchors of a continuum ranging from reflective to semireflective to automatic. Thus, more than one form of processing may be involved in a particular behavior and shape responses to interventions. For example, once behaviors have become automatic, or habits (e.g., recycling), they are more easily sustained, and are less affected by such drivers as social norms and expectations. Thus, understanding the cognitive processing involved in a particular driver can support careful analysis of how a behavior can be modified and thereby guide the design of interventions.
A broad range of organizations and stakeholders, including farms, nonprofits, innovators (e.g., startups, app developers, incubator hubs), K–12 schools and postsecondary institutions, state and local government entities, and food industry associations and companies, are contributing to efforts to reduce food waste. (Selected efforts to tackle the problem at the national and local levels are described in Chapter 2 and Appendix C.) The Winning on Reducing Food Waste Initiative, a collaboration of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), was launched in 2018 to help achieve long-term reductions in food loss and wasted food in the United States by coordinating and leveraging government resources and encouraging nongovernmental efforts, including research, community investments, education and outreach, voluntary programs, public–private partnerships, tool development, technical
While all of these efforts are valuable, the need for action remains great. Accordingly, the committee sought ways of leveraging the existing knowledge base on how to influence consumer behavior and to build on the Winning on Reducing Food Waste Initiative. The research on consumer drivers and effective interventions is incomplete, but it nonetheless offers a basis for a variety of approaches to bringing about the widespread changes in consumer behavior needed to significantly reduce food waste, even as researchers continue building the evidence base. Our strategy identifies three primary pathways for reducing food waste, as well as the responsibilities of the multiple partners who will be needed as part of a coordinated effort to pursue those pathways.
Three Pathways to Reducing Food Waste
The following three pathways make up the committee’s strategy for reducing consumer food waste:
- changing the U.S. food environment to discourage waste by consumers;
2 The Winning on Reducing Food Waste Initiative encourages long-term reductions in food loss and wasted food in the United States through a variety of combined and agency-specific actions, including policy discussion, education, community investment, and public–private partnerships. Since its formation, the Winning on Reducing Food Waste Initiative has published a strategic plan and announced partnerships with ReFED, a nonprofit organization, and the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, an industry-led group. See https://www.usda.gov/foodlossandwaste/winning.
- 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.
Marketing practices and tactics intended to promote the acquisition of food that is unlikely to be consumed are an important driver of food waste. Product branding and the practices of retailers and away-from-home food providers influence consumer choice by creating motivation to overacquire or to buy aspirational (i.e., healthy) or novelty products (which may not match preferences) without increasing consumers’ ability or motivation to consume those products before they decay. Price promotions and special offers, such as multiple-unit pricing, along with packaging, signage, and displays, and other cues to consumers to seek variety or shop in an exploratory manner, all influence their choices. Such marketing tactics operate at both conscious (e.g., buy-one, get-one-free deals) and nonconscious (e.g., signage that gives consumers the impression that price has been reduced) levels. Other tactics operate at both levels (e.g., larger carts and larger servings).
At the time of this writing, it remained unclear what long-term impact the COVID-19 pandemic would have on food provisioning, but the following trends were observed prior to the pandemic. ReFED estimates that approximately 11 million tons of food are wasted annually at the pre- and postconsumer levels in U.S. restaurants, and another 5 million tons in other food service settings,3 the majority occurring postconsumer (ReFED, 2018). Food eaten away from home is especially likely to be wasted for several reasons. First, hedonic factors play a greater role in consumers’ away-from-home choices than in their choices about food at home. Moreover, eating in public settings also activates “performative” consumption. Buffet dining poses a particular risk for waste, where abundance and variety prompt many consumers to take more food than they are likely to consume.
Although the marketing practices of the food industry prompt overacquisition and waste among consumers, some food businesses have also designed interventions to reduce their preconsumer waste (e.g., regular donations of surplus food to food banks, dining halls that do not provide
3 See https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=2&ved=2ahUKEwiRz_O7sM_nAhVUmXIEHSEaCm4QFjABegQIChAB&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.refed.com%2Fdownloads%2FRestaurant_Guide_Web.pdf&usg=AOvVaw03jMTkZCRY6yxSxeGS1m75.
food trays or encourage sampling and use small plates). Still, although the case for reducing waste in a company’s business operations (e.g., preconsumer waste) may be perceived as obvious, business owners do not always recognize the benefits to them of encouraging consumers to waste less food (Messner et al., 2020). For example, a World Resources Institute analysis found that 99 percent of 1,200 food manufacturing, food retail, hospitality, and food service sites earned a positive return when they invested in approaches to reduce food waste in their operations, but that many leaders in the private sector are not aware of this benefit. Industry leaders also may not be aware of other benefits of reducing food waste, such as improving food security, environmental sustainability, and stakeholder relationships, and the satisfaction of taking ethical responsibility (Hanson and Mitchell, 2017). Efforts such as a guide produced by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF)4 have helped encourage participation in food waste reduction programs in the hospitality sector. An example of another relevant initiative is guidance, developed in the United Kingdom, for retailers on how to create food promotions that will not contribute to increased food waste.5
Overall, there is a need to reconcile the tension between the industry’s goal of selling food and its role in reducing food waste, not only in its own operations but also at the consumer level. More research is needed to investigate effective interventions at the food industry level and the potential for maintaining profits while increasing food waste reduction efforts and improving consumer loyalty. Food industry trade associations and nonprofit organizations are uniquely positioned to address the needs of the industry and to ensure that industry leaders are informed both of best practices for reducing food waste and of the business and social benefits of implementing those practices not only in their operations but also at the consumer level.
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.
Examples of the actions that manufacturers, retailers, and marketers can take to pursue these goals are shown in Box 5-2.
Include food waste reduction in industry certification.
Third-party organizations, governments, and some businesses have developed multiple voluntary environmental certification programs. These programs establish incentives for organizations to achieve such goals as ensuring environmental stewardship in food production and provisioning activities, the safety of products, or other socially beneficial goals (e.g., worker protection). Some programs accord with guidelines established by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), while others set their own criteria. Organizations that meet such goals and achieve standards are more competitive and attractive to both consumers and business partners, such as purchasers of institutional food, particularly those
that make value-based decisions. Examples of such programs include ISO 14001, the Good Food Purchasing Program, the EPA’s 55/30 program, the American Chemistry Council’s Responsible Care Program, and the Certified Green Restaurant standard.
The effectiveness of such standards in achieving their goals has been demonstrated, specifically for those standards that include environmental performance, such as ISO 14001 (Boiral et al., 2018). In the realm of food waste, one study tested business social responsibility certification and found that participants would be willing to pay more for products with labels guaranteeing reduced food waste across all firm activities (Del Giudice et al., 2016). However, ISO 14001 and other similar programs do not include in their criteria for certification activities that may decrease the waste created by the companies’ consumers.
Certification programs related to environmental performance, such as ISO 14001, are effective tools for encouraging companies to change their behavior, resulting in substantial improvements in environmental stewardship and, in particular, waste reduction. Meeting standards related to industry activities to reduce consumer food waste could improve consumers’ views of their operations and increase industry competitiveness. However, the criteria for qualifying for such certifications generally do not include practices that will reduce waste created by the companies’ consumers.
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.
Most packaged foods in the United States carry a date label representing the manufacturer’s best guess as to how long the product will be at its peak quality (Broad Lieb et al., 2016). Most products are still perfectly edible for days, months, or even years past the date on the label. However, studies have shown that consumers mistakenly believe that the date on the label is an indicator of safety. In addition, many states require the display of dates on all food, including that with an indefinite shelf life, regardless of the safety risk. As a result, food manufacturers serving multiple states include label dates on all products (Broad Lieb, 2013). To add to the confusion, the language of date labels has not been standardized, so the meaning of phrases used on the labels by the food industry, such as “use by,” “freshest by,” and “best by,” is unclear to consumers. Although food trade associations have begun to align date labeling to address this confusion, and
other efforts have also brought changes that have helped address the problem, usage is still voluntary and not yet standardized. Moreover, because consumers tend to avoid food they understand to be close to expiration, retailers may remove such food from shelves even before the stamped date.
The lack of harmonization of date labels and resulting misinterpretation by consumers likely result in the wasting of edible food. There is a need to apply common, clear language and definitions to the labels on packaged foods sold in the United States, accompanied by relevant information and educational materials. In addition, some nonperishable foods may not need date labels at all. However, only preemptive action at the federal level could override state laws and allow firms the latitude to remove date labels from some nonperishable food packages without fear of violating labeling regulations.
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.
Policies at the state and local levels have a powerful influence on food waste, and state and local agencies have initiated a number of creative and effective programs aimed at food waste prevention (Benson et al., 2018). Traditionally, for example, consumers have paid for trash disposal and recycling in municipalities through a fixed fee, either separately or together with other service fees or through property taxes. A meta-analysis of 25 studies (1970–2013) shows that when households in the United States and other developed countries face unit-based pricing,6 the amount of waste disposed of declines (Bel and Gradus, 2016). Furthermore, unit-based waste pricing is most effective when programs charge a separate fee based on the amount of compostable waste disposed of or when pricing is based on the weight (versus volume) of discarded items, which suggests the potential impact of this approach on reducing food waste at the household level. About one-fourth of communities in the United States had implemented
6 Unit-based pricing, also known as pay-as-you-throw or variable-rate pricing, is a system of waste management whereby residents pay for the removal of municipal solid waste per unit of waste collected rather than through a fixed fee or property taxes.
unit-based pricing policies as of 2006 (EPA, 2016), implying that there may be considerable scope for expanding coverage of this practice.
Another policy approach is to ban the disposal of organic materials in landfills, an approach introduced in six states and seven municipalities as of 2019 (Sandson and Broad Leib, 2019). However, the committee could find no peer-reviewed evaluations of the effectiveness of these bans in the United States or peer-reviewed assessments of their impacts on other segments of the food system and society (e.g., stress on food donation centers, composting facilities, retailers, and local budgets; regressive consumer cost impacts).
Waste management policies such as those that ask residents to pay for the removal of municipal solid waste per unit of waste may be effective in reducing household food waste, although it is important to consider how such policies relate to other aspects of the food system and society (Benson et al., 2018). Both state and local governments can make waste prevention an integral component of their waste management structures. For example, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has made reducing the waste of edible food an objective, with targets of 15 percent reduction by 2025 and 40 percent by 2050.
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
The committee recommends three strategies for increasing consumers’ motivation, opportunity, and ability to reduce food waste: (1) conducting a national behavior change campaign; (2) taking advantage of the influence of popular food experts (e.g., chefs on cooking shows, food blogs)
on consumers’ attitudes and preferences; and (3) including instruction and experiential learning about food literacy in K–12 and postsecondary education curricula.
Conduct a national behavior change campaign.
An important element of a national behavior change campaign would be to increase consumers’ motivation to reduce food waste by providing relevant information about the importance of the problem, appeals that align with their intrinsic motivations to reduce waste, information about the financial benefits to them of reducing waste, and ways to enhance their skills at reducing their own waste at and away from home. To go beyond the objectives of past information campaigns, a behavior change campaign should also address nonconscious factors that affect the propensity to waste food, and be designed so as to have maximum behavioral impact. In addition, the campaign should aim to encourage stakeholders to change relevant political and economic contexts in order to give consumers opportunities to take action once they have been primed to do so (Thomson and Ravia, 2011). Finally, the campaign should be aimed at influencers who can help support change in social norms and pave the way for consumers’ behavior change (see below).
Surveys have revealed that the majority of American consumers have not seen information about food waste, are not aware that it contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and environmental degradation, and underestimate both the amount of food they waste and the financial cost of that waste to themselves. As discussed above, consumers also hold many misconceptions about food safety and the meaning of date labels, which are ambiguous and can be misleading, resulting in food waste. However, campaigns focused only on raising awareness may not change actual behavior (Elimelech et al., 2019; Giordano et al., 2019; Grainger et al., 2018; Thomson and Ravia, 2011).
Past information campaigns (e.g., Food: Too Good to Waste, Save The Food) have addressed the problem (see Appendix D) at the national level. For example, WWF organized a national campaign aimed at hotels that addresses consumer food waste. The strategy recommended in this report would build on such prior efforts and should address three main barriers to behavior change.
First, because of the diversity of the consumer population, campaigns targeted at specific audiences are most likely to be effective. For example, consumers already motivated to care about the environment may be especially responsive to a campaign about the environmental costs of wasting food. Other consumers might be driven by the significant monetary savings from reducing food waste, which could range up to $1,800 annually for the average family. Messages should be developed and targeted based on local
and population segment–related sensitivities. Positive messaging has been shown to be more effective than negative messaging in effecting behavior change.
Second, because of the strong role played by habit and nonconscious behaviors in driving food waste (and other environmentally damaging behaviors, as discussed in Chapters 3 and 4), the mere acquisition of new information may not change behavior. Indeed, in many cases, the issue is not that consumers are or are not motivated to change their behavior, but that the force of habit and consistent habit-related cues make food waste behavior automatic. To address this barrier to change, campaigns should be designed to take advantage of “teachable moments,” reaching consumers when routines or environments may be in flux. In such cases, old habits are more easily disrupted and new habits formed. For example, individuals who have recently changed homes, purchased new appliances, or entered new life phases or who are shopping for the first time in a new retail location may be particularly apt to override past automatic tendencies and develop new patterns. The changes due to COVID-19 represent a prime example of a situation among consumers in which the moment is right to reach out to them about the impacts of food waste and how they can alter their food-related habits to reduce it.
Third, the committee’s review showed that many factors unrelated to objective information help shape behavior. Examples include social norms, perceived psychological distance from food, and identity. Thus in addition to providing compelling information about the effects of food waste, behavior change campaigns should leverage social science findings related to these drivers of the problem.
Still, a successful behavior change campaign cannot succeed if consumers lack the opportunity or ability to act on the messages provided. Thus, as discussed above, a goal of such a campaign should be to support consumers in modifying their behavior and promote some of the easy ways in which wasting food can be avoided both in and outside of the home, as well as encourage stakeholders to change important political and economic contexts to support consumers’ opportunities to take action. To develop sustained behaviors, mechanisms targeting opportunity and ability would ideally also provide feedback and rewards related to the desired behavior changes.
While the federal agencies involved in the Winning on Reducing Food Waste Initiative are in the best position to coordinate a far-reaching campaign that takes advantage of these insights about behavior change, such a campaign will be most effective if it is a collective effort involving state and local governments as well as nongovernmental entities and settings (e.g., schools or workplaces) that can adapt the campaign to local and regional circumstances using culturally appropriate mechanisms and language. In addition, the campaign should benefit from platforms and lessons learned
from prior efforts, such as the consumer surveys and consumer segmentation research from the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Save the Food campaign.
RECOMMENDATION 7: As part of the federal Winning on Reducing Food Waste Initiative, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. 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
Influencers within the food domain include chefs, social media personalities, recipe providers, and food and culture journalists. They can drive consumer choices by helping to establish and reinforce social norms; providing information on broad topics related to food and the environmental
impacts of its production; and offering guidance for the acquisition, cooking, storage, and consumption of food through recipes and through the behaviors and attitudes they model. This guidance could reinforce behaviors and values that have the potential to reduce food waste. In addition, influencers could help spread accurate, evidence-based information about the social, environmental, and economic benefits of reducing food waste.
Consumers are also influenced by interactions with dietitians; state extension specialists; community health champions; and other health, food, and nutrition professionals. Thus, professional and community organizations through which these experts exchange knowledge are ideal venues for augmenting evidence-based information about specific aspects of food literacy, such as food safety and quality, how to understand food labels, and practical food preparation and storage skills that can optimize the utilization of food.
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.
To leverage this source of influence, experts and influencing organizations, including foundations, chefs, dietitians, professional organizations, and environmental nonprofits, could collaborate in updating the information they offer to consumers with evidence-based guidance on food waste and relevant information related to food literacy, food safety, and nutrition; promoting consistency in messaging; and targeting messages appropriately for the populations they reach. Influencers are in position to
- shift social norms related to edibility, abundance, freshness, and seasonality;
- incorporate easy solutions into existing guidance (e.g., recipes, food and lifestyle blogs, cooking shows) related to optimizing acquisition, storage, and consumption that will result in less wasted food (e.g., tools integrated into recipes that allow users to easily alter the number of portions; suggestions for repurposing leftovers or unused food items);
- when writing recipes, consider how the ingredients are packaged and sold to avoid waste, or provide suggestions for alternative ingredients or uses of the leftovers;
- incorporate messages and guidance about the benefits of avoiding waste into their exiting guidance; and
- help influence other stakeholders to provide more opportunities for consumers to take action.
Include instruction and experiential learning about food literacy in education curricula
Schools and academic institutions (preschool/K–12, trade schools, universities and colleges) are a substantial source of food waste (e.g., Schupp et al., 2018). They are in a position to impart and support foundational skills and knowledge pertaining to food provisioning practices and habits, and to foster social norms and food literacy to support positive decisions about food (Koch, 2016). Further, these institutions interact with students at teachable points (e.g., when they move to a new geographic area), which could provide opportunities for the development of waste-avoiding habits. Lessons learned in the cafeteria can encourage students to become better environmental stewards in the future (Devine and Pearson, 2019). K–12 and postsecondary institutions can make a lasting contribution and can influence students’ food literacy and motivation to reduce food waste by
- including programming related to the effects, prevention, and management of food waste, as well as how to prevent it, in the curricula for math, science, social studies, language, arts, family/food/consumer sciences, financial literacy, economics, vocational classes, and others;
- altering their own practices to prevent food waste in their operations and assist their students and staff in preventing food from being discarded;
- providing other educational resources, including relevant spaces such as teaching kitchens, food gardens, campus orchards, and campus farmers’ markets, for experiential learning related to sound food practices and for meetings with food producers; and
- providing incentives (e.g., credits, certificates, awards, internships) for student-led innovations in food waste reduction (e.g., through university hackathons, design jams, business-pitching competitions).
Schools, colleges, and universities are already doing many of these things, and many are collaborating with other stakeholders in the food
supply chain (food service entities, culinary schools) to develop curriculum and educational opportunities, as well as policies and interventions, aimed at reducing food waste in their institutions. In other cases, however, institutions may have the impetus but lack the resources to devote to such programs. Leadership at the national level could help diffuse best practices and innovative ideas, support their adaptation to new circumstances, provide resources, and avoid reinvention of good ideas.
Existing collaborations provide a valuable foundation on which to build. One example is the Menus of Change: University Research Collaborative,7 which among its activities is conducting studies of food waste in university cafeterias. Some groups are providing guidance for specific curriculum activities, such as food waste audits, measurement of environmental impact, food budgeting, analysis of recipe books, food safety training, and cooking (e.g., the WWF Food Waste Warrior toolkit,8 the Commission for Environmental Cooperation’s Food Matters Action Kit,9 and the Johns Hopkins FoodSpan10). Others are providing guidance for school administrators and teachers on strategies for reducing food waste by both the institutions and by the students (e.g., NRDC,11 USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service12). These ideas could be incorporated into USDA’s Farm to School program as well. There is a need for rigorous evaluation to explore which interventions are most effective, and in which settings, and to communicate findings widely to reduce unnecessary duplication of effort.
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.
7 The Menus of Change: University Research Collaborative is a collaboration of forward-thinking scholars, food service leaders, executive chefs, and administrators for colleges and universities who are accelerating efforts to move people toward healthier, more sustainable, and delicious foods using evidence-based research, education, and innovation. See https://www.moccollaborative.org/about.
Pathway 3: Leverage and Apply Research Findings and Technology to Support Consumers in Food Waste Reduction
Support research and technology
Many technological developments, such as packaging and processing to extend shelf life, refrigeration approaches, and food preservation technology, can play a role in reducing food waste. Important drivers of food waste at the consumer level, such as unpredictable and busy lifestyles; lack of time, energy, and the cognitive demands of everyday life; and consumers’ limited ability to assess food safety, can be addressed by technology. Progress in this sphere is rapidly developing, and promising recent developments include
- improvements in the built environment, such as sophisticated temperature controls in refrigerators that preserve perishable foods longer and provide consumers with information about the freshness and safety of their food;
- technologies supporting behavior that limits waste in the acquisition, preparation, and storage of food (e.g., online food acquisitions,13 apps, online gamification tools,14 smart grocery carts15);
- technology advances in food products and packaging, including food coatings, food product development, preservatives developed for consumer acceptability and safety, and packaging that meets consumer and environmental goals for reduced packaging while preserving food longer;
- smart bins that measure wasted food and help with managing food scraps (inedible parts); and
- apps and other devices to help consumers with awareness, planning, and other behaviors related to food.
Technology may help support consumers in overcoming some of the conscious and unconscious drivers that lead to food waste, particularly those related to lack of knowledge, the complexity of everyday life, and the ability to assess food safety. Food and food storage manufacturers, food retailers, food service providers, and innovators can contribute significantly to reductions in food waste by continuing to improve existing technologies and creating new ones to help consumers with reducing food waste. At the same time, there are many unknowns regarding the effects of deploying
technologies, including how easily consumers may accept them; their feasibility; their costs and benefits; their effects on reducing food waste; and their unintended effects, including those related to equity. Academic researchers can contribute by conducting studies that go beyond effectiveness to consider such issues as acceptability to consumers and unintended effects, including those related to equity.
Beyond technology, researchers from a number of disciplines are studying other aspects of the challenge of reducing food waste at the consumer level, and they have already provided the foundation for meeting this urgent challenge. However, the ongoing success of the strategy laid out in this report will depend on ongoing work to address significant gaps in the knowledge base (see details in Chapter 6). Dedicated investments are needed to support this research.
RECOMMENDATION 10: 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
The overarching goal of the committee’s proposed strategy is to create and sustain a broad societal commitment to reducing food waste. Achieving this goal will require the participation of government entities at the federal, state, and local levels as well as the food industry and retailers; influencers and the media; nongovernmental organizations; and those who provide food through a number of different channels, such as cafeterias in schools and universities. Leadership and financial support from the federal
level will be necessary to stimulate and coordinate the efforts of multiple stakeholders. It is only through a multistakeholder commitment that the United States can make the transition from a society in which attitudes and habits facilitate the wasting of food to one in which attitudes and habits are consistent with appreciating the value of food and its utilization.
Federal agencies (USDA, EPA, and FDA) have the capacity to engage multiple stakeholders, including state and local governments, the food industry and its representative trade associations, the community of nongovernmental organizations, and private foundations in a comprehensive initiative to reduce food waste. The improved coordination and cross-sectoral discussions fostered by this new initiative, if conducted in an inclusive and equitable manner, could have multiplier effects and advance solutions and innovations rapidly and for all populations. Partnerships focused on reducing food waste, such as the Pacific Coast Collaborative, which includes the West Coast of the United States and Canada and industry and local government partners, provide examples on which to build.
RECOMMENDATION 11: The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. 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 5-1 provides an overview of the contributions that the essential partners would make to the committee’s proposed coordinated food waste reduction strategy.
|State and local governments||
|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 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||
Finally, as new approaches to reducing food waste are tested, adapted, and implemented it will be critical to collect and analyze data on their operation and effects. As discussed in Chapter 6, 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 committee’s proposed 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.
To sustain the strategy laid out in this report, ongoing work will be needed to address significant gaps in the knowledge base on food waste. The following chapter describes the primary gaps and provides suggestions for research priorities.
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