A new study of food habits in low income households suggests that strategies intended to save money on food might actually have the opposite effect.
Food waste, just like any other waste of resources, affects us all, even if we can't see an immediate connection in our own lives. A staggering 30-40% of the food in the U.S., and an estimated 25 percent of food globally, never gets eaten, which takes an unnecessary toll on water supplies, energy costs, and other related inputs to the food system. And yet at the same time that food waste is a huge global issue, many people around the world still struggle to get enough to eat every day.
Even for those of us who don't go hungry, wasted food at home still means wasted money, which can be a big obstacle to overcome in low- to middle-income families, where making ends meet is always a challenge. While it would be easy to lay all of the blame for food system waste on circumstances beyond our control, such as policies, politics, transportation, or even weather, it may be that our own shopping and food habits could be responsible for a large amount of home food waste, according to a new study from the Cornell Food and Brand Lab and the Getulio Vargas Foundation.
But the good news is that most of the factors behind home food waste "can be easily remedied" by changing our behaviors, said Gustavo Porpino, the lead author of Food Waste Paradox: Antecedents of Food Disposal in Low Income Households that Cook from Scratch.
The study, which looked at the food shopping, preparation, and disposal habits of lower-middle class families in two suburbs of Sao Paulo, Brazil, was rather small in scope (less than 20 families were observed and interviewed), but the findings could be relevant to many households across the world, because the practices that led to the most food waste are also common strategies for saving money on food in many places.
The top cause of food waste, the study found, was actually purchasing too much food at one time, followed closely by preparing too much food at once, both of which can lead to food going bad and being disposed instead of eaten. That finding is at odds with a lot of advice for saving money on food, namely to buy foods in bulk (to get a lower cost per unit), and to shop less often (to keep impulse buys down, which happens to also be implicated in food waste).
"Five major categories of food waste antecedents were identified: (1) excessive purchasing, (2) over-preparation, (3) caring for a pet, (4) avoidance of leftovers and (5) inappropriate food conservation. Several subcategories were also found, including impulse buying, lack of planning and preference for large packages. Surprisingly, findings show that strategies used to save money – such as buying groceries in bulk, monthly shopping trips, preference for supermarkets and cooking from scratch – actually end up generating more food waste. This mitigates the savings made during the purchasing phase." - Food waste paradox: antecedents of food disposal in low income households
The authors recommended that food stores could offer classes or workshops to help shoppers learn cooking tips and proper food storage methods, and that food assistance programs should integrate lessons about better purchasing, cooking, and food storage techniques as part of their programs for nutrition education.
One of the things I found interesting in this study was the "caring for a pet" issue, about which the researchers noted that pet owners didn't consider uneaten food to be a waste if it was then fed to the home's pet. The other was that my family and I have found nearly the opposite to be true, and that when we buy in bulk, cook larger portions ahead of time and properly store them, and eat our leftovers, we have less food waste at home. It obviously depends on which types of foods you buy in bulk, how you store them, and how you prepare them, which are all behaviors that can be learned, and which was the basically the conclusion of the study.
The lead author, Gustavo Porpino, a PhD candidate at the Getulio Vargas Foundation and a Visiting Scholar at the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, noted that addressing the home food waste issue in low-income households could be as simple as helping people change these behaviors:
"Fortunately, most of the factors that lead to food waste, can be easily remedied by simple changes in food buying, preparing, and storing." - Porpino