It is clear that we have a problem when it comes to the efficient use of our food resources. Copious amounts of food are thrown out while others struggle to meet their food needs. While much of people’s struggles with obtaining enough food is economic: there is just not enough money to buy enough food, the reasons why people, whether wealthy or poor, throw out food is less clear.
Melbye et al., (2016) attempt to answer some of these questions in their recent article “Throwing it all away: Exploring Affluent Consumers’ Attitudes Towards Wasting Edible Food” (Journal of Food Products Marketing). Much of what they talk about could find a comfortable home under the umbrella of food literacy, that is “understanding the impact of your food choices on your health, the environment, and our economy” (http://www.foodliteracycenter.org/what-food-literacy).
They tested the following four hypotheses by surveying 103 Norwegians from a relatively wealthy part of the country.
How much do we know about food?
Their first hypothesis is that more food knowledge means more negative attitudes about wasting food. Do people understand best before labeling and what do they do based on that understanding? Are people adept enough to know what to do with food as it approaches its expiry date?
They look at this through the lens of objective knowledge (what is actually stored in our memory) and subjective knowledge (a consumer’s belief in their knowledge), and focusing on the latter. In other words, how much consumers perceive they know about food has an impact on their attitudes towards wasting it.
Do we care about the environment?
They further hypothesize the level of environmental concern as manifest by what could be considered as environmentally friendly behaviours would result in more concern about wasting food.
How old are you?
Do you think young people or old people are inclined to throw out food? I’d guess that most of you, as the authors suggest and hypothesize, think that older people, whose memories are informed by the post Depression and now more likely World War 2 vestiges of food and other scarcity, are less inclined to waste food than their younger counterparts, many of whom who have not encountered any true scarcity.
How much money do you make?
Finally they hypothesize that people with high incomes are less concerned with throwing out food than those with low incomes. I know we want to believe that because it fits into a wishful narrative, but the empirical results of waste audits that I have undertaken do not bear this out, with food being an equal component in poorer and richer areas of cities and towns.
There were statistically significant negative relationships between food knowledge, environmental concern and age. That means that less food knowledge, less environmental concern and a lower age were all negatively related (i.e. less concerned) to attitudes about wasting food. Interestingly no significant relationship was found between income and these same attitudes.
In plainer English that means that consumers with a better understanding of food (and when it actually goes bad) are less inclined to throw it out.
There was a similar significant relationship with those who infused environmental concern into their daily lives. This resulted in the strongest relationship among the four hypotheses. They suggest it reflects personal moral norms, which are manifest as pro-environmental behaviour (itself a part of pro-social behaviour, or behaviour that benefits others).
The impact of age is probably the easiest to understand and we should start becoming concerned as the generations who experienced scarcity have begun working their way through the age chain.
The impact of income was the most interesting. While the sample size was small and the results not conclusive it adds to previous research that suggests that income does not play the role we would like to think it does.
The conclusions that can be drawn from this study is that it is important to transfer food literacy or food knowledge from the older to the younger. Furthermore, and logically the environmentally concerned among us can be used as the champions to push and promote the better and more equitable disbursement of our food resources.
However, the key driver, as crass it sounds, is money. It is not really discussed in this article other than to suggest that income does not significantly impact attitudes. In other words income and its impact on attitudes may transcends the population. You don’t have to be old, care that much about the environment or be a food expert to understand the impact of keeping more money in your pocket.