The Cultural Side Of Food Waste
Food waste is a serious environmental issue that contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and the loss of natural resources. In developed countries, consumers play a significant role in food loss, particularly when it comes to fresh fruit and vegetables. For example, private households are responsible for 53% of discarded food in the European Union. Moreover, fruit and vegetables constitute half of the household produce thrown away in Europe.
Food waste can occur at several different stages, including planning, purchasing, storing, and consuming food. Consumers may end up purchasing more food than they need, or they might not know how to store food properly. In addition, personal factors such as lifestyle, purchasing behaviors, and perception about discarding food can influence whether someone wastes food.
These researchers wanted to understand the cultural dimensions of food waste. As such, they explored the variables that affect consumers’ decisions to throw away fruit and vegetables across different countries. They surveyed individuals in the U.S., Canada, U.K., and France. The survey included a mix of demographic, lifestyle, and food waste-related questions.
Overall, an average of 16% of respondents reported that they never discard fresh fruit or vegetables. People in France were more likely than others to make this claim. On the contrary, individuals in the U.S. reported a slightly higher likelihood of “often” discarding fruit and vegetables compared to other countries. Across all countries, the most common reason for wasting fruit and vegetables was forgetting to eat something before it spoiled. Other common reasons, particularly in the U.S. and Canada, included purchasing more food than needed and food spoiling more quickly than expected.
Over half of the surveyed individuals in the U.S. reported dining out at least once a week, a factor that often contributes to throwing away food at home. Comparatively, a much lower percentage of participants from Canada (37%), the U.K. (28%), and France (24%) reported dining out. When it came to grocery shopping, preparing a list to avoid buying too much produce was less common among the U.K. participants. Concerning produce storage, a smaller percentage of U.S. participants (67%) knew how to properly preserve fruit and vegetables compared to those from France (82%), the U.K. (73%), and Canada (77%).
Regarding the environment, individuals from the U.S. (48%) were the least likely to think that throwing away food is harmful to the environment. In contrast, over 70% of respondents from other countries believed that wasting produce has a negative impact on the environment. Across all countries, U.S. participants (94%) were slightly more eager to eat leftovers compared to respondents from Canada (92%), the U.K. (82%), and France (91%). Relying on the expiration date to decide whether food is inedible was also more common in the United States.
Certain variables were similar across countries. For example, researchers found that younger people tend to discard produce more frequently than older individuals, while relying on expiration dates increased food waste in all countries. However, many other variables were specific to each country. For example, having kids and a larger household size in the U.S. were both associated with throwing away more food, whereas in the U.K., having kids was linked to less waste. Having a full-time job increased produce loss only in Canada and the United Kingdom, while concerns for the environment decreased food waste in the U.K. only. In all countries except France, participants who felt healthier than their peers discarded food less frequently.
Participants also differed in how they manage food waste during the planning, purchasing, storing, and consumption stages of food purchases. Specifically, preparing a shopping list decreased fresh fruit and vegetable waste in the North American countries, but not in the U.K. or France. Being price-conscious when shopping increased produce loss for the European countries. Only respondents from the U.S. and France who had better food storage skills discarded food less frequently. Eagerness to eat leftovers lowered produce loss in France and Canada, while relying on appearance to judge the quality of a food item lowered food loss in all countries except the United States.
In sum, this study shows how consumers’ food waste behavior differs depending on one’s cultural context. Because of these differences, it is crucial to come up with country-specific policies to combat the food waste crisis. However, it’s important to note that only women from higher-income households were included in this study. In addition, the findings are specific to fresh fruit and vegetables. Therefore, they may not be generalizable to other populations or other food categories, including animal products.