UA Food Study: Shop More, Waste Less

UA researchers investigating how consumers make decisions about food consumption and shopping have found that they actually waste food because they bulk-buy too often.
May 29, 2015
Victoria Ligon set out to understand how people acquire, prepare, consume and discard food. She tracked shopping and food preparation patterns and also conducted interviews with study participants, who kept food diaries.
Victoria Ligon set out to understand how people acquire, prepare, consume and discard food. She tracked shopping and food preparation patterns and also conducted interviews with study participants, who kept food diaries.

Part of the reason American shoppers are so attracted to wholesale shopping is their belief that bulk-buying not only prevents waste but can save time and money, providing more value for the dollar.

However, results from a qualitative investigation by the University of Arizona of buying habits suggest that the opposite may be true.

Victoria Ligon, who earned her master's degree from the UA Retailing and Consumer Sciences Program, studied food purchasing and preparation habits of U.S. consumers for her thesis, finding that those in the study tended to buy too much food and waste more of it than they realized. Ligon has begun doctoral studies in the program.

"The problem is that people are not shopping frequently enough, which sounds counterintuitive," Ligon said. "It seems that people in this country are very price sensitive at the grocery store, but tend to overlook the cost of discarded and unused food at home."

With several scholarly papers and reports dating to 2009 indicating that upward of 30 percent of food grown in the U.S. ultimately ends up in landfills, Ligon has set out to find solutions to the food waste problem.

"Much of the discussion we hear about is related to supply," said Anita Bhappu, an associate professor and program chair of the UA Retailing and Consumer Sciences Program in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Bhappu is also Ligon's adviser and collaborator.

"How can we grow more food to feed the world? How can we get food to the people who are hungry? Food distribution remains an issue, but Americans still waste so much food, way too much," Bhappu said.

Ligon will present the study and the research findings during the "Bridging the Past, Cultivating the Future: Exploring Sustainable Foodscapes" conference, to be held June 24-28 at Chatham University in Pittsburgh. The conference is a joint meeting of the Association for the Study of Food and Society and the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society. Ligon's research was funded by the Terry J. Lundgren Endowment.

A common practice is to visit different stores for different items on a grocery list. Research has shown that Americans regularly shop for food at four to seven stores, and Ligon’s participants generally fit this pattern. 

"You'll find that a person will get their bread at Trader Joe's, their paper goods at Safeway, their milk at Walmart. People are looking for the places that offer the best product, the best brands and the best prices," she said.

"But people tend to overbuy at each of the places where they shop, and it's not just the cost of products, but it is also expensive in terms of time spent traveling back and forth to these different places," Ligon said. "People are not planning for the next day, but planning for the next week or two."

In theory, planning a week or more in advance sounds ideal. But given the reality of many people’s lives, this is challenging to do well, Ligon said.

She explained that with the proliferation of fast food, people have more food options and can easily shift meal plans without notice. Also, with busy schedules — people may be juggling multiple jobs and family responsibilities — it becomes easier to forgo a previous meal plan.

"All of our food promotions are designed to get people to buy more," said Bhappu, an expert on digital retailing and consumer coupon usage. "We believe it's cheaper if we buy more now, but we rarely take into account how much we throw out in the end. And if you factor in the cost of what you are throwing away, it is very unlikely that you are saving anything."

Then there's the issue of planning.

"We've all been told that to manage the chaos in our lives, we should plan better. The interesting part is that meal planning is hard to execute because there is so much uncertainty in our daily family living," Bhappu said.

"To me, the big-picture finding is that while this meal planning helps us psychologically feel less stressed about all of the home tasks we have to manage, it is not easy to execute. In the end, it results in inefficiency and waste because food is perishable."

Concerned about "the planet, the pocketbook and people," Ligon and Bhappu are looking for solutions. 

Both noted shifts in the grocery industry that appear promising to help customers reduce food waste. Examples include cost-effective delivery services such as Amazon Fresh and Google Express, which allow consumers to purchase food items when they want to consume them, also reducing their need to frequent so many different stores. Also, the "eat locally" and "eat seasonally" movements are promising.

However, the study resulted in another troubling finding: The majority of people involved in the study had no idea that they were buying too much and wasting so much. And even when they did, they preferred not to acknowledge it.

"It's uncomfortable. People don't want to confront the cost of the products they are throwing away," Ligon said. "It's sort of embarrassing. But everyone felt they wanted to reduce their waste."

This cognitive dissonance creates a tremendous challenge in reducing food waste. The issue is about shifting habits and patterns of behaviors, Ligon said.

"When you read advice about reducing waste, it usually centers on what people do after the food is purchased: Try different recipes, focus on eating at home, eat food close to when it is purchased," Ligon said.

"Of course, everyone thinks they are doing better than the average person, but people don't even notice when they waste," she said. "So it may not be about cognitive willpower or intelligence. People need to consider shopping more and buying less. Shop on a more frequent basis, so that you are only buying what you are going to consume in the short term."