Society & Culture

Smaller households are less efficient with food

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Planning is key to reducing food waste in American households

Public health experts are imploring Americans to avoid the kind of large gatherings that mark the holidays.

But additional food waste may be an unfortunate byproduct of fewer people at the table, according to researchers at the University of Georgia. The key is some additional planning.

Smaller households tend to waste more food, according to a study on household food waste and inefficiencies by faculty in UGA’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences’ Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics. Larger households have a greater potential for diversity of tastes, leading to greater opportunities for consumption of prepared foods.

Waste is defined as the amount of unconsumed food, whereas inefficiency is the measure of unused food.

The people who tend to be most efficient with food production are usually older, have more education or shop more often for food. Households where more than one person is responsible for meal preparation have greater food inefficiencies, likely due to coordination problems.

Another factor — the distance to grocery store — showed that people who travel farther distances waste less food. “They might tend to plan more,” he said.

Waste and inefficiency could be due to other issues such as scale efficiency — how good you are at ramping up operations, a type of inefficiency.

“If you think about your time, some people who are better at cooking might take less time,” said the study’s lead author, Travis A. Smith, an associate professor in UGA’s Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics.

A growing problem

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, roughly one-third of food waste is at the retail and household levels in the U.S. Higher-priced items tend to get wasted less, but because food is relatively cheap, it’s more of an afterthought, according to Smith.

Americans spent an average of 9.5% of their income on food in 2019 according to the USDA. Those who earned more spent a higher total amount on food, but less percentage of their paycheck compared to those with lower wages.

Although copious research has been done on consumer food preferences, there is limited comprehensive data on household food shopping and consumption. The authors used data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Nationwide Food Consumption Survey done in 1977-1978, a study that was later discontinued due to its burden and cost. They hope their findings may help spur further data collection and ultimately motivate industry or policy changes.

Consumer uncertainty

One uncertainty for consumers and potential policy option is the use of food labels. “There’s a lot of confusion about ‘use by,’ ‘best by’ and ‘sell by’ dates,” explained Smith. The ambiguity surrounding these commonly used phrases is because they revolve around food quality, rather than food safety. Only infant formula currently requires a date for food safety.

The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service developed the FoodKeeper App to help consumers better understand storage to maximize the freshness and quality of food.

One industry shift growing in popularity is offering various package sizes for consumers to plan a more finite amount of product, but there is still room for improvement, Smith said.

“If you want to eat kale, you have to buy a huge bag and the rest might get thrown away [due to spoilage]. That’s something that could be addressed at the industry level,” he said.

Read the full study published by Smith and co-author professor Craig Landry in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics along with a follow-up commentary about progress and challenges in food waste research.