Want to Reduce Food Waste? Add More Grocery Stores

Public Domain. Unsplash / Barthelemy de Mazenod

Cornell study finds that when people have easy access to food shops, they discard less at home.

Americans waste an obscene amount of food. Between 30 and 40 percent of food produced for human consumption never gets eaten, ending up in landfills where it breaks down and emits methane, a greenhouse gas whose pound-for-pound impact is 25 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period.

There are numerous reasons for this waste, from overstocking by retailers and over-buying by shoppers, to confusing expiry dates and poor cooking skills; but regardless of the reason, it's something that must be stopped. Excessive food waste must be curbed not only from an ethical standpoint, but also because it's a powerful tool in the fight against global warming and climate change.

Now, a new study from the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University and published in the journal Manufacturing and Service Operations Management has an interesting solution. Professor Elena Belavina says that opening more grocery stores could reduce food waste significantly. This may sound counterintuitive, but it's the conclusion reached by studying data from the grocery industry, the U.S. Census bureau, and other academic studies.

Most U.S. cities lack diverse options when it comes to grocery shopping, which means that people tend to overbuy when visiting a store. They buy more than what they can realistically eat, which means food goes to waste. By contrast, when there are more stores in a neighborhood, people will shop daily or multiple times a week, buying just what they need, which means less food goes to waste. From Cornell's press release:

"'The more stores you have, the lower food waste is going to be,' said Belavina, an expert in operations management and supply chains. 'Very small increases in store density can have a very high impact.' For example, Belavina found that in Chicago, which she said is typical of many American cities, adding just three or four markets within a 10-square-kilometer area (about four square miles) would reduce food waste by 6 percent to 9 percent."

The perfect balance would be something akin to New York City's arrangement, which blends supermarkets with small neighborhood markets and corner-store bodegas and produce stands. Europe (and much of the rest of the world) is famously good at this, too, with specialized retailers catering to shoppers' various needs, such as bread, cheese, meat, and produce.

food market in Tel Aviv

© K Martinko – A lively food market in Tel Aviv, Israel

It is possible to have too many grocery stores, which can tip the balance in the wrong direction and generate more food waste, but generally in the U.S. this is not a problem. From the study: "Actual store density in most American cities is well below this threshold/optimal level, and modest increases in store density substantially reduce waste."

Belavina's research did find that increasing the number of grocery stores would lead to more food waste by retailers, but this is less than the amount of food wasted by consumers. "We at home throw away 10 times more food than the grocery stores," she said. This is why focusing on solutions to minimize consumer waste will have a greater benefit overall than focusing on retailers. (Read how different sectors contribute to food waste.)

Belavina suggests that when adding more stores isn't feasible, people should explore alternative shopping methods such as online orders and deliveries. "Any service that makes it more convenient and allows you to shop more frequently [is worthwhile]. To reduce food waste, essentially what households need to do is bring less groceries home."

This advice feels strange at times like these, when people are frantically stockpiling groceries to ensure they don't go hungry during a global lockdown. Once the Covid-19 pandemic stabilizes and life goes back to normal, it would probably be wise to strike a balance between stocking the house with non-perishable staples so that you're never entirely unprepared and buying perishable foods in smaller quantities on a regular basis. It's also smart to familiarize yourself with the foods that are most commonly wasted, such as coffee, bananas, chicken, milk, apples, bread, potatoes, and pasta, and make an effort to minimize these at home.