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The Psychology of Food Waste: An Interview with Brian Roe and Laura Moreno

Posted by Jimmy Nguyen, Program Analyst, USDA Food and Nutrition Service in Initiatives
Sep 09, 2019
Psychology of Food Waste infographic
There are complex behavior patterns that may lead to food waste. Photo credit: USDA

What’s the psychology behind food waste and what can we do to change our behavior? This interview features insights from Brian Roe, Professor and Faculty Lead at The Ohio State University’s Food Waste Collaborative and Laura Moreno, who received her Ph.D. studying food waste at the University of California, Berkeley.

Nguyen: The USDA estimates that 31 percent of the available food supply is wasted in homes (21 percent) and in consumer-facing businesses (10 percent). Food waste is a big problem and people need to make changes in their personal routines to reduce food waste. How do we approach the problem in a noncritical way?

Moreno: I discard food in my household and I totally feel guilty about it. A characterization of people who waste as lazy, careless, or excessive simplifies the issue to one of personal choices, but research has found it to be much more complex. Decisions and choices made by consumers are influenced by decisions made up and down the food supply chain. For example, people who live alone cite that it is difficult to purchase food in quantities that make sense for them, which leads to regular over-purchasing.

Nguyen: Brian, in your 2015 food waste survey 77 percent of respondents said they felt guilty about wasting food, but 51 percent also said it would be difficult to further reduce household food waste further. If guilt isn’t a big motivator to change behavior, what is?

Roe: An average family can toss food worth thousands of dollars each year, and that could be enough to grab the attention of some households. Wasting food wastes resources, takes up landfill space and causes environmental damages, and this may be the motivating factor for some households to take notice. For others, the idea that excess food could be redirected to those that experience food insecurity might be the factor that spurs their action.

Nguyen: So perhaps we should tailor our messages to different households. What about highlighting the cost of food waste?

Roe: For some, the dollar losses do add up, but there is no check-out ticket in your kitchen each time you toss uneaten food, so the losses are not salient – they don’t slap you in the face like a $1,500 bill at the end of the year would. Also, some steps required to reduce food waste can take time, and time is money. For some, the extra time is simply more precious than the dollars that are lost.

Moreno: It is not always a simple relationship between food and money. Money lost is different than value. For example, sometimes people buy larger quantities of items due to sale or value. Say someone bought a pack of three zucchini when they only needed one because it was the same price as one. They ended up discarding the other two, but didn’t consider it a waste of money because they would have paid that much anyways (this is a true story from my research).

Moreno: People get a lot of benefits from food, one of them has been dubbed “good provider identity.” People express love and care through providing things, including food to their friends, family, and other loved ones. However, for some people, this results in buying more food than needed to make sure people’s cravings are satisfied or that they have access to healthy food. This can lead to food being discarded.

Another example is that people often strive for self-improvement, including eating healthier. A person may shop with the intention of consuming healthier foods, but may not follow through for a variety of reasons including lack of time to cook or feeling stressed and needing comfort food.

Nguyen: How can the message of saving time help people reduce food waste?

Moreno: Saving time is also a complicated issue because some people engage in "time-deepening" activities to save or shift time. Those activities have been linked to instances of over-purchasing and other behaviors that are linked to wasted food.

My one piece of advice isn’t a specific action or behavior that people can undertake. Instead, if you want to reduce how much food you waste, think about what are the most wasted items in your household and why. And, make sure that any changes you want to make align with your household priorities and lifestyle.

Nguyen: Food storage can lead to food waste, and we know that consumers may be confused about date labels on food. Is this a big problem?

Roe: I've seen estimates that up to 30 percent of home food waste could be attributed to misunderstanding of date labels and the group ReFED ranks this as one of the most potentially consequential changes in terms of reducing food waste.

We need a campaign that really helps consumers understand that, for most foods, the date is the manufacturer’s best guess for when product quality will begin to degrade, and not related to food safety. Then for those few foods where there is a safety issue (ready-to-eat meats, soft cheeses and a few other items where there is a chance of listeria and similar pathogens but no cooking involved), here the date indicates safety. This is where consistent, universal labeling phrases will be crucial to ensure people put the products in the right category and act accordingly.

Nguyen: What’s the best way to provide consumers with information about food date labeling?

Roe: The presence of a few items with real safety issues makes this a difficult education campaign because you need 'If A then B, but if C then not B', which is tougher than some public information campaigns.

Moreno: In terms of messaging about various topics related to reducing wasted food, many people that I have interviewed have said that getting information is the grocery store would be ideal for them because they are already thinking about food and are in the mindset to get that information, whereas, they would be less compelled to engage with the information if they received it via email or another method.

Nguyen: In the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and The Ohio State University survey, some 76-86 percent of people say they waste less food than the average American. Why do people think they waste less than they do?

Roe: It is a natural tendency to think you are slightly above average when it comes to x, y or z positive activity. Perhaps it is further compounded because very few people (a) know how much food they are wasting and (b) even if they did know this, they don’t have a benchmark against which to compare it.

Nguyen: You also found that the idea of composting alleviates a lot of guilt over throwing away food and in some cases can increase food waste. Can you talk about that research?

Roe: Yes, we conducted a study in a setting where we gave people a free lunch for filling out a survey. Before we let people choose their lunch items, we let them know whether the uneaten items were going to landfill or to a composing facility. Also we varied another information treatment where some people were told about the problems with food waste while others received information about another topic. We then tracked how much food they took and how much food they left uneaten. We found the least plate waste when people were told about the problems food wastes causes and told that their uneaten food would go to the landfill. The group that was told their food waste would be composted left significantly more food on their plates. This is known as a licensing effect – people don’t feel as motivated to reduce waste if they think the waste won’t cause any problems – and others have found similar trends.

Roe: But it's a two-edged sword for composting at home. Composting at home forces consumers to see how much they waste, which can motivate reduction as well. Composting remains critical. Even the most effective food waste reduction program will still result in substantial uneaten food that can't be redirected to other humans, so we need composting to address landfill and associated environmental concerns.

Nguyen: If you were an entrepreneur, what technology would you create to help consumers reduce food waste in their everyday lives?

Roe: Apps that track your food inventories are quite compelling – something that can not only direct you to use up items in storage, but give recipe advice, track grocery budgets, and upload items to online grocery ordering apps – something that can solve a lot of problems – could help reduce food waste and provide great value all around.

Moreno: I think these apps would need to be adaptable to people with a variety of lifestyles, skills, and desires. Some people have complained that apps for recipes based on what food is available are too complicated and require another trip to the store when someone just wants a simple recipe suggestion. Experimentation and cooking complex recipes will work for some people and not for others.

Nguyen: Tech will save us! Or maybe not. Those WWII campaigns about saving food and shopping smart were incredibly effective.

Moreno: What was effective about those was that we rallied people around a greater cause. We need to do a better job connecting the issue of food waste to other issues such as nutrition and emergency preparedness.

Nguyen: Can you give us a preview of your current food waste research?

Roe: I have been working with Corby Martin and John Apolzan at Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University. With funding from USDA, we have developed the FoodImage app for research purposes. We have people download the app and then use the camera to track their food purchases, food preparation waste, food intake, plate waste and food discard behavior. We are finding that in some of our pilot work that it helps people be more thorough in their capture of behaviors than using a diary. We are analyzing data right now where some respondents just tracked their waste while a randomly chosen group were given coaching on how to best reduce their waste. We are looking forward to analyzing those data in the future.

Moreno: My dream would be to do a study that follows a relatively small number of households and track their food discards over a longer period of time using a mixture of qualitative and quantitative methods. I want to better understand purges (i.e., cleanouts) as well as better understand the extremely variable nature of food waste generation in households. Sitting with people and talking about food is fun, but is also very illuminating to how people interact with food.

Nguyen: Thank you, Brian and Laura, for your time.

For further reading:

Discard intentions are lower for milk presented in containers without date labels
Foodservice Composting Crowds Out Consumer Food Waste Reduction Behavior in a Dining Experiment
Most people waste more food than they think – here’s how to fix it

This blog series highlights innovations in food waste reduction as part of the Winning on Reducing Food Waste Initiative, a collaborative effort among USDA, EPA, and FDA to affirm their shared commitment to work towards the national goal of reducing food loss and waste by 50 percent by 2030.

Category/Topic: Initiatives

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