I am continually amazed at the power of everyday observations around food (and specifically food waste) in our developed world culture, the messages behind those observations, and the behaviors that those messages reinforce. We need not look far to see entrenched drivers of food waste, they are all around us. Consider these five brief examples.
First, I recently went into the cafeteria of a mid-sized hospital while visiting a patient. While getting a coffee, I stood next to a hospital worker evaluating the lunch specials on display that day. His reaction as he engaged the food service employee in his decision-making process was quite memorable and went like this: “Is that the chili in a bowl like that? Wow! That’s a big bowl of chili. What a big bowl of chili!” It was clear that he was not only incredulous at the portion size, but that it impacted his choice.
Now mind you, this is a hospital setting, a location where one would think there would be heightened emphasis on nutrition and healthy eating – including appropriate portion sizes. In fact this particular hospital’s website does note that its dining areas offer heart-healthy and low-fat meals and snacks.
As an aside, minutes later the family that I was visiting commented that during their stay they continually tried to reduce the amount of food delivered at mealtime – but to no avail. The room service meal delivery was patient-friendly yet robotic in nature; exceptions to reduce the quantity for someone who was eating very little because of her condition simply did not compute. In fact, one request actually led to a delivery of more food.
A second poignant experience followed while I was participating in a radio talk show on the food waste problem. A caller to the show brought up the story of an Army mess hall sergeant who continually discarded large quantities of food due to over-preparation with respect to the number of personnel to be served. That individual elected not to reduce the amount of food ordered, however, for fear of having his food budget cut in the future – which of course resulted in a continued stream of wasted food. In other words, pursue the safe option: maintain the status quo, accept the waste, and continue to order more than is needed.
Both of these examples suggest institutional cultures that are accepting of a high level of food waste, and lacking in incentives to reduce it. That’s a big problem.
Third, like many Americans I was recently caught up in the excitement of playoff football, which of course generates images of festive game-viewing parties. During this period I frequently heard a radio advertisement from a leading retailer which “educated” the listening audience on the key to hosting a successful playoff party. The answer: always have more food than people. While seemingly harmless, the overt nature of “always having extra” struck a chord with me as this mindset is certainly a driver of wasted food, and it is indicative of the “abundance” perspective which American consumers associate with food. With food relatively inexpensive and available everywhere, the incentive is to play it safe, stock up, and discard any remainder. It also struck me as similar to the cultural norm in parts of Asia where the expectation is to have considerable excess food on hand for celebrations as a sign of respect to guests. Running out of food, or even having just enough, is simply not an option. That hospitable mindset can lead to substantial waste of food when full plates are continually delivered to the table right up until the end of the event.
Fourth, while en route to give a talk on food waste solutions, I took note of the ever-expanding signage among restaurants emphasizing large portion sizes, combination meals, value meals, and all-you-can-eat offerings. The word “big” is apparently no longer sufficient to convey the value for certain products; we’ve gone from “big” to “grand” — and I’m sure there are many other words yet to be tapped to enticingly convey large portion size and low cost. While reflecting on such word choices and the high visibility of such signage, I was treated to a bright, blinking neon display advertising $5 Cheap Eats – All Day – Everyday. If that message doesn’t illustrate the heart of our valuation problem with food, I don’t know what will.
And last, I’ve recently taken note of a new television show – Ginormous Food – which depicts a search for Herculean-sized food portions that no individual could (or should) attempt to consume. What’s the message to the American consumer? More reinforcement of abundance, and big quantities, and ultimately, more wasted food. That message is completely out of sync with Feeding America’s “Together we can solve hunger” campaign which ironically is currently running on the same network.
Clearly, when it comes to food, we Americans have an obsession with “big.” We associate value in food with quantity rather than quality, and it seems that nearly all categories of restaurants have some version of a value meal involving a quantity pitch (2 for $1, 2 for $2, any size for $1, $5 combos, all you can eat, kids eat free, etc.). Such campaigns not only lead us to overeat – exacerbating the already-critical obesity and diet-related illness situation we are facing in the U.S. – but they also lead to considerable waste of food as well as all of the resources that went into producing it. Further, even more resources are later consumed in hauling much of that wasted food to landfill, where it decays and harms the environment. While “cheap” on the front end, the cost of our excess production is high on the back end.
As noted, many of our institutions have a culture that is all too tolerant of a continual cycle of wasted food. Retailers, restaurants, and media productions can worsen the problem by “cheapening” food in the eyes of the American consumer – the very group where we want to drive broad and deep change to minimize food waste. Our focus should be on valuing food, not on devaluing it.
It’s time (well past time, really) to change the frame – to move away from a culture of abundance around our food to a culture of responsibility.
Consider the power in flipping the scenarios described above.
Consistent with its healing mission, the hospital in question could overtly message the importance of responsible portion sizes as part of a nutrition and wellness focus –thus improving the health of its stakeholders while saving money from reduced food waste and simultaneously reducing environmental harm. The military could institute a reward system for forward-thinking mess sergeants who undertake responsible efforts to reduce the over-purchase of food supplies. Benefits would include cost savings and increased engagement among personnel which could flow into other areas (and as always, reduced food waste is a win for the environment). Retailers could alter their advertising campaigns to emphasize taste over quantity, while also positioning themselves as leaders in food waste reduction efforts by educating consumers, developing programs around “imperfect” produce, and driving waste reduction strategies through the supply chain. In addition to cost savings, such CSR efforts will increasingly be rewarded by educated consumers while also helping to attract and retain talented employees seeking meaning in their careers. Similarly, restaurants could also alter their advertising efforts to focus on quality of food rather than quantity deals, saving money while also attracting customers who value responsible social behavior. TV networks could help drive the urgently needed shift to responsible behavior among picky consumers by developing shows focusing on the optimal use of all food resources (ex. stem to root, nose to tail, embracing imperfect produce, etc.) rather than glorifying “ginourmous” offerings that not only lead to waste but sicken those who do try and consume them.
Go big or go home? That might be the right approach for our favored sports teams, but it’s the wrong mindset with which to approach our food resources. Let’s flip it. How about: Go small and go responsible? We’d all be much better off for it. And it takes big thinking to “go small and responsible” to change our wasteful habits around food.
Note: This post draws on material from a much more visual piece published in The Huffington Post. To see that piece, which is part of The Huffington Post’s “Reclaim” effort to increase awareness about the problems of global food waste, see this link.