A recent study on awareness and attitudes around food waste in the United States has yielded some interesting findings. The study, conducted by Danyi Qi and Brian Roe of Ohio State University, shows that while awareness around the food waste crisis is growing, there is a significant discrepancy among how people perceive their role in fighting food waste. The survey focuses on consumer attitudes of household food waste, but unsurprisingly, many of the findings parallel similar issues we encounter in the commercial foodservice industry. What the study makes clear is that changing individuals’ behavior on a large scale is the key to widespread and sustainable food waste reduction.
Food Waste Happens
The attitudes survey found that 86.5% of people believe they waste less than other households of the same size. Setting aside the impossibility that this statistic reflects reality, it highlights the importance of shifting the way we approach food waste. The first step in enabling behavior change around food waste is educating both consumers and foodservice professionals on the reality of the food waste issue. A common misconception about waste is that people perceive that they (individually or as a foodservice operation) produce less food waste than other entities of similar scope—or that they produce no waste at all, in the case of some foodservice operators. In foodservice, waste has long been the elephant in the room that no one wanted to admit was present. The reality is that even the best foodservice operations have some amount of waste, and we need to change the way we view food waste, and think of it as an opportunity for improvement rather than an indication of failure.
Creating a Culture of Prevention
Another sentiment shared by some foodservice providers is that they don’t have time to worry about food waste, a feeling echoed by nearly 25% of household survey respondents. This belief that we can’t spare the resources to address food waste is the product of cultural norms that lead us to believe that food waste isn’t deserving of time or attention. To combat this, we must work as individuals and foodservice teams to foster a culture of food waste prevention, building waste reduction practices into our normal workflows. In foodservice, we believe this is best done through consistent measurement of wasted food. By tracking what food is being wasted, in what quantities and for what reason, teams can begin to understand and reverse the root causes behind food waste in their operation. Eventually, food waste prevention becomes second nature, resulting in a more efficient, engaged kitchen and requiring no “extra time” to address it.
So, if general education about food waste is the first step in shifting behavior towards wasting less food, then illustrating the specific benefits of food waste prevention is step two. By focusing on prevention, individuals and foodservice businesses will make the most impact financially and environmentally.
Wasted Food is Wasted Money
One of the more startling findings from Qi and Roe’s survey is that only 42.1% of people think throwing food away is a major source of wasted money. But when 40% of all food in the U.S. is wasted and 4-10% of food purchased in foodservice never reaches a customer, it’s clear we’re losing money when we waste food. Fortunately for commercial operations, financial savings is a major benefit of measuring and preventing food waste—LeanPath data shows that operations that diligently track their food waste typically reduce their food costs by 2-6%, meaning there is a huge opportunity for savings to a business’s bottom line.
A Major Environmental Issue
Another illuminating finding from the study is that 41.6% of respondents don’t know that wasting food has negative environmental consequences, when in reality, food waste rotting in landfills generates eight percent of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the world. Put another way, if food waste were a country, it would rank third in the world for GHG emissions, behind only the U.S. and China. Preventing food waste at the source has the greatest environmental impact, as it helps avoid the energy and water used to produce, transport, store, and cook the food. Couple that with the financial benefits from avoiding the cost of wasted food (in purchasing, labor, and disposal), and it’s clear that food waste prevention is a major opportunity for foodservice operations and households alike.