Neff et al., (2015) reports on the results of a national US survey (N=1,010) on wasted food. From the research of others they report that Americans waste 40% of food (post harvest onwards), the equivalent of 1,250 calories/capita (post harvest onwards); $161 billion (US), $370/capita and 9% on average of food spending.
They adjust the “food waste” nomenclature somewhat referring to “wasted food” and “discarded food” and rightly try to shift away from food waste. It’s what food becomes rather than what it is. It is only waste because we let it get there (or because it is unavoidable).
The results of the (self reporting) survey are interesting. Firstly, there is a surprisingly high level of awareness of the issue with 42% saying they had seen or seen information about wasted food. However, 69% of respondents reported they wasted no to 10% of the food they purchased (the units were not clear here- kg, volume, $$). Fifty-two per-cent of respondents indicated wasting of food bothered them “a lot”. The reasons for wasting food included concern about food borne illnesses, wanting to only eat the freshest of foods and interestingly because since they composted thrown out food it did not bother them. Respondents indicated that reasons to reduce discarding food included monetary savings and setting a good example for their children. Concerns for the environmental impact of wasted food were lower than one might expect.
While there are obvious concerns with self-reported data (are they reporting reality or what they think they should say), that the authors acknowledge, this well crafted paper highlights that respondents are aware of food waste and the role they play. People feel poorly about wasting food, yet feel that they waste less than average. Somehow the paradox in this thinking needs to be bridged. What is heartening is that people seem to be aware so interventions can be crafted that use this as a starting point.
There are a number of problems with advancing the reduction of wasted food. I think a key structural issue is that the headline numbers that are being used (and sometimes incorrectly). The calculations, while probably correct on at least a quasi-order of magnitude scale, indicating that there is a problem in need of rectifying do essentially nothing to point to where interventions need to be developed. This has resulted in a scattershot approach when it comes to intervention development. As well repeating the same numbers over and over does not make them more correct even though that is how they are perceived. Crawling into the weeds to find out what is really going on at the household (or whatever part of the food supply chain one wants to tackle) will help us develop effective interventions.
Neff, R. A. (2015). Wasted Food: U.S. Consumers’ Reported Awareness, Attitudes, and Behaviors. PloS one, 10(6).