Food Environmental Impacts and Actions

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality is working with Portland State University’s Community Environmental Services to conduct a five-part study on wasted food generation in the State of Oregon. The main research objectives for this study are:
  • Understand the informational, psychological, socio-economic, and structural drivers that contribute to the generation of preventable wasted food;
  • Collect reliable data on wasted edible food, including loss reasons and reporting biases; and
  • Provide the state, cities, counties, and consumer-facing businesses, such as grocery retailers and restaurants, with basic methods of establishing their own wasted food baselines and assessing shifts in waste prevention behaviors or levels of awareness.

Task One (Qualitative Interview) Results

The first part of this larger effort is a qualitative study, consisting of open- ended interviews with thirty-two Oregon residents. This qualitative study was conducted at the start of the broader study in order to inform later tasks.

Summary of findings:

The following findings illuminate key themes that are applicable to the larger topic of wasted food and related behaviors in households. While the findings cannot be generalized across all of Oregon’s residents, they represent major categories of beliefs, values, attitudes and behaviors are relevant throughout a substantial part of the state’s population. Subsequent research is exploring these themes in more detail. 
  • Healthy Eating. For example, people trying to eat healthier often buy a lot of produce that ends up going uneaten when they fall short of their goals.
  • Meal Planning and Preparation. Dedicated meal planners may waste things unexpectedly for example when they make a trip to the farmers market and buy delicious-looking produce, but that produce wasn’t in their meal plan.
  • Waste Aversion and Delayed Disposal. Freezing and saving leftovers often resulted in food being saved, but not necessarily eaten. Storing leftovers seems to be connected to guilt alleviation through delayed disposal.
  • For example, grocery stores were cited as the most convenient and visited option, however, the experience was listed by some respondents as stressful, sometimes leading to respondents’ altering purchasing habits to reduce the number of shopping trips they had to make.
  • While shopping in grocery stores was considered part of most people’s normal routine, many respondents viewed farmers’ markets and gardens as an “activity” or “experience” and associated less stress when shopping at those locations.
  • Many single-person and small households indicated that getting or preparing the correct portions of food for their needs can be difficult, especially when they do not enjoy eating the same meal as leftovers for several days.
  • For people cooking at home, portion sizes available at grocery stores, quantities provided in recipes, and the size of cookware were all mentioned as barriers to preparing a smaller amount of food.
  • Items “lost in refrigerator” or “forgotten in the back of the fridge”.
  • Partially-consumed beverages left out too long (such as milk, coffee, and soda).
  • Foods purchased in sizes that are larger than desired.
  • Foods purchased for specific meals or recipes.
  • Foods purchased to eat healthier (connected to aspirational relationships).
  • Leftovers (connected to waste aversion and delayed disposal).
  • Items that are wasted at the end of food phases or fads.
  • Food served to children.
  • The act of composting instead of throwing food in the trash alleviates guilt associated with discarding food, which may result in increased generation of wasted food.
  • Composting was also seen as separate from the trash, so the amount discarded may be effectively “hidden” from view.  This may prevent people from accurately characterizing their discarded food and thus their ability to identify methods to reduce wasting in the first place.
Note that the term “food waste generation” in this report includes food that was discarded to trash, down the drain, fed to animals, and organics recycling such as composting or anaerobic digestion.

Task Two (Statewide Survey) Results

The second part of this larger effort, a statewide phone survey with 486 households in Oregon, will inform later tasks.  Survey items are based on findings from the task one (qualitative interviews) and the goal of contributing to the following overall project research questions:
  • What are the perceived barriers to reducing wasted food?
  • What are the perceived reasons for wasted food?
  • What habits or behaviors do households engage in that promote or avoid wasting of food?
  • What level of knowledge do people have about ways to reduce wasted food?
  • What beliefs, attitudes or values are related to food waste behaviors?
Survey findings are grouped into procurement, planning, disposal, leftovers, and food preparation, use and management.  This report contains preliminary analyses of the phone survey responses, but further analyses will be done after combining them with responses from a similar survey with participants who complete a kitchen diary in the subsequent task, a household wasted food baseline study.