I often talk about the need to harness our daily observations concerning food waste – or any sustainability challenge, really.
When we see conditions of excessive waste – especially in close proximity to people in need or with evidence of the environmental problems it causes – we need to take the time to reflect on those conditions, and the underlying causes, however uncomfortable they may be. It’s easy to dismiss these visuals – these signals – as symptoms of systems that are too big for us as mere individuals to change, for they can indeed seem daunting. But that’s precisely why we need to address them. When we experience these signals, we need to wrestle with them, and embrace the discomfort that they cause us, to force us to seek solutions.
I’ve had many such experiences in my food system journey, particularly related to food waste, and I find that they come when I least expect them. I’ve written about many of them in this blog, and I’ve discussed many of them in educational lectures. And they keep coming.
For example, earlier in May I attended Waste Expo in Las Vegas, speaking on innovation for food waste prevention in the Food Recovery Forum portion of the conference.
Having attended the morning sessions and engaged in some conversations with colleagues, I suddenly realized that I hadn’t eaten, and I was scheduled to speak in about 25 minutes. I needed some food in a hurry.
I hurried through the cavernous Convention center to the cafeteria, scanning for the shortest line and thinking I would grab whatever was the quickest solution. Noting that the pizza line was amazingly short, I thought – great – one slice of pizza is perfect right now! – because I don’t need much, but I definitely need something.
Checking my watch, I pointed to a slice and quickly said to the woman behind the counter – “I’ll take that one” while pulling out my wallet to pay. She immediately gave me a plate with two large slices – which was much more than I wanted, and more importantly, much more than I had time to consume at that moment. Expecting to easily remedy her mistake, I quickly said “No – I only need one” – and motioned for her to take one slice back. At this point, she replied, somewhat mechanically (because it was clear that she had said it many times before), “You might as well take both, because you’re going to get charged the same price for one as for two.”
And there it was – another signal of the need for change to the food system – our penchant for promoting large portion sizes, and our pricing strategies to reinforce them. In fact, the robotic-like nature of the employee’s response indicated that she informed customers of this pricing approach several times per day.
I quickly understood the business angle – the foodservice provider had obviously determined that offering two pieces of pizza at a fairly high price ($16.51) was a better approach to maximizing profit than selling individual pieces, while also limiting the risk of cannibalizing from other relatively high-priced lunch offerings in the venue with a low-priced, one-slice offering.
Since I was by myself and short on time, I didn’t have the option of trying to split the meal combination with someone. And while I really only intended to buy one slice when going into the lunch area, I rationalized that I really could eat a bit more than one slice (after all, I was paying for two slices) – even if two was too much for me. So while I could have paid for two and taken only one, I ended up taking two slices.
Not surprisingly, I ended up wasting a fair amount of the second piece, and I wasted a portion of calories by consuming more than I really needed – which left me reflecting on the irony of the fact that I had just wasted food and calories just before I was going to deliver a talk on the subject. And I also wondered – how many other individuals had the same experience that day – prompted by the pricing options at that particular venue?
This reminded me to reflect on the multitude of drivers of food waste at the consumer level – food is always available, in excessive variety, and in excessive quantity. Food kiosks have even invaded the baggage claim area at airports – so we don’t have to go without food or coffee in the brief interlude when we might be waiting for our bag. And at the heart of our food wasting behavior lies the fact that we have been conditioned to associate value with quantity. Just consider the advertisements by food providers, especially fast food operations, that bombard us daily – either visually on our commutes or through the air waves. Most of the signage and messaging refers to “the deal” – the amount of food we are getting for a certain price – such as one dollar or “2 for $2” menus, $5 Fill-ups, $5 boxes, and myriad other low-cost combinations. And as Jonathan Bloom notes, when any size coffee is $1, which one are you going to choose? Likely the large one, leading to excessive consumption and waste.
And the “quantity = value” theme has moved up the ladder from fast food and quick service restaurants to fast casual operations, larger restaurants, and convention center venues like the one described here.
And while we have options as consumers – we can pair up with someone and split the large portion, we can seek to donate part of our meal, or we can take the excess home as leftovers – these options aren’t always easy, especially when we are traveling. When the supply side is continually pushing large quantities of food on us, it can feel hard to push back. In many ways our food system is encouraging excessive consumption and excessive waste, and the normalization of that combination comes at an extremely high cost to both people and planet.
I noted in last month’s post that it’s clear that we need to consume fewer resources by wasting less – both in fashion and in food.
At the consumer level, we need to break our fixation with quantity as the overriding driver of value when it comes to food.
And when we do that, we can push for more responsible offerings from foodservice providers that limit plate waste rather than reinforcing a culture of food wasting behavior.