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Pandemic-related cooking and eating habits could help curb food waste – if consumers stick to them

UPDATED: Tue., Sept. 1, 2020

Sourdough baking – and using starter castoff in other recipes rather than throwing it away – has become a popular pandemic hobby.  (Deb Lindsey)
Sourdough baking – and using starter castoff in other recipes rather than throwing it away – has become a popular pandemic hobby. (Deb Lindsey)
By Rachael Jackson Special To The Washington Post

This spring, horrified Americans watched farmers dump milk and plow under vegetables, but the story of food waste and the novel coronavirus didn’t end there.

While farm-level dumping caused outrage in the pandemic’s early days, during normal times it was households that were responsible for a huge chunk of America’s food waste – about 43%, according to ReFED, a nonprofit focused on the issue. That waste happens in less dramatic ways, such as unloved veggies scraped off a plate or a take-no-prisoners fridge clean-out.

And that’s exactly the kind of dumping that coronavirus-wary Americans seem less likely to do during the pandemic. Perhaps hesitant to risk virus exposure at the store, you have improvised more meals from whatever the fridge offered. Or started doing inventories of your pantry and shopping with targeted lists.

And, amid tightening finances, you may have eaten something past its “best by” date or frozen vegetables before they turned to mush. COVID-19 has prompted many people to adopt new behaviors that groups such as ReFED have promoted for years. And those habits could have a real impact on food waste.

If enough of those habits stick, consumers might just cut into the 30% to 40% of food that the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates is wasted during normal times. Preventing some of that waste would save fuel, water and other resources used to produce the food. It also would send less food to landfills, where it is a significant source of climate-changing methane.

“I am certainly optimistic that a silver lining of this pandemic is that overall less food will go to waste,” said Dana Gunders, executive director of ReFED.

While initial shocks to the food system certainly caused waste, the future could be different.

“Longer term, however, in almost every step of the supply chain, I’m seeing positive shifts that I think could lead to less waste,” Gunders said. When it comes to consumers: “This moment has created a forced opportunity for people to really improve their food management habits.”

Accenture, which polled consumers regularly from March to July, consistently found that 55% to 70% of Americans said they were more focused on limiting food waste and would keep it up in the future.

In a survey on specific behaviors, London-based environmental charity, Hubbub, found that nearly half of United Kingdom adults surveyed said they were throwing away less food, with some even reporting eating food past its printed date (which often can be done safely). In a separate report, British sustainability nonprofit WRAP also surveyed U.K residents and found that more people were deploying new, less wasteful food management practices, including making meals from random ingredients.

So, how much could these behavior shifts affect the volume of food waste? It’s difficult to predict, experts say, noting that collecting hard data is expensive, requiring households to keep detailed waste diaries or auditors to sift through garbage. But, for now, WRAP has found that, at least in the United Kingdom, people are self-reporting lower levels of waste. The group regularly asks households to estimate the percentages of their milk, bread, potatoes and chicken that get tossed. Between November and April, those estimates dropped by about one-third.

Whether they will drop permanently remains to be seen: The waste estimates ticked up a bit in June, particularly among people going back to work, but they were still well below November levels. WRAP found that people said they wanted to maintain their new food habits post-shutdown, but they cited time and convenience among reasons they might not.

Similarly, researchers at the NPD Group found in June that 50% of Americans reported reducing food waste as they coped with the pandemic, a figure that was 9% lower than in April. The market research firm attributed the decline to restaurants reopening and outdoor dining.

Online behavior has also been telling: Readership on recipes and how-to guides on the Washington Post’s Voraciously website surged in March, April and May, with stuck-at-home cooks and bakers drawn to topics such as stretching yeast resources and ingredient substitutions. On EatOrToss.com, which I maintain to help people assess “questionable-looking” food, traffic tripled between February and May and has loosely followed the pandemic’s curve ever since, slipping a bit in June and climbing again in July.

Whether due to financial constraints, fear of interacting with virus-transmitting humans or simply because being stuck at home means more time to chop vegetables and experiment, people are cultivating skills, from canning to baking bread, that could cut waste long after the pandemic.

Newfound kitchen skills might reduce day-to-day food waste even after the virus threat subsides, according to an Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy journal article set to publish in October. But the same analysis notes that variables, ranging from changes in shopping patterns to the tendency for people to waste food during transitional times, could cause more waste.

Quite possibly, the pandemic’s impact on household food waste might be tied to its long-term impact on our lifestyles overall. For example, work-from-home policies – a trend that appears likely to continue post-pandemic – might play a role in whether some households can keep up their new habits. That pound of turkey in your fridge is simply more likely to get eaten if you’re at home and there’s little risk of a spontaneous lunch with co-workers. Or, as Madeline Keating, who leads food waste work in Denver for the Natural Resources Defense Council, points out, you can multitask: She once blanched and froze fading asparagus during a work call.

Pete Pearson, the senior director for food loss and waste at World Wildlife Fund, hopes consumers’ increased comfort with ordering groceries in advance brings about more recurring deliveries of staples such as milk, bread and eggs.

“If we think of food more as a subscription, that could in turn lead to food waste reduction just because it’s more predictable and you can match supply and demand better,” he said.

Gunders said that more online grocery orders also could mean smaller produce displays at stores, meaning fruits and vegetables could spend more time in shelf-life-extending, temperature-controlled storage.

Online grocery orders, however, aren’t guaranteed to reduce waste. Among other factors, shoppers still have to avoid impulse buys and find uses for food that they discover isn’t quite what they expected when delivered. Like, say, when you think you’ve ordered six bananas, but six bunches of bananas arrive on your doorstep, which definitely didn’t happen to me.

The massive, shelf-clearing purchases common in March may have subsided, but Brian Roe, an agricultural economist at Ohio State University, worries the pandemic’s legacy may include impractical stockpiles. Roe recently worked on a national survey, finding that just over 35% of consumers were stashing more food in their freezers because of the pandemic. Thoughtful freezing preserves food and reduces waste, but it’s easy to lose track of items in a sea of icy containers.

Dining at home reduces waste in other ways: In a 2018 study published in PLOS ONE, Roe found that when people serve themselves, their plate waste is often less. And plenty of waste comes from over-ordering at restaurants and ignoring leftovers. Buffets, which might cease to exist, are notoriously wasteful.

Since the start of the pandemic, people’s concerns about food waste have intensified, said Laura Gurski, a consumer goods strategy consultant at Accenture who has been tracking consumers’ attitudes during the pandemic.

“This conscious consumer has emerged,” Gurski said, noting that Accenture’s “research is showing sustainability, limiting food waste and thoughtful choices” are becoming more important.

Keating, with NRDC, said the pandemic made addressing food waste feel far more urgent.

“The thing about household food waste reduction is that it really starts with a mind-set change,” she said. “It’s about being intentional about your purchases, taking the time you need to make a list, following the list and then doing inventory management …

“That just takes a certain level of dedication, and a lot of people have time for that dedication right now.”

Jackson is a D.C.-based writer and the founder of eatortoss.com. Reach her at eatortoss@gmail.com

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