Viewpoint: New multi-campus study reveals two untapped strategies for reducing food waste – Food Management

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of Food Management.

Copious data underscores the need to reduce food waste. At a minimum are the climate impacts: Project Drawdown ranks reducing food waste as the No. 1 solution to reversing global warming. Across retail outlets, community organizations and individual households, myriad strategies are being employed, from the new Upcycled Foods Certification to carrot-top pesto and beyond.

But volume foodservice settings, and specifically campus dining halls, are their own unique environments, in part because of their all-you-care-to-eat design. A new study just published in Foods, “Food Choice and Waste in University Dining Commons – A Menus of Change University Research Collaborative Study,” has uncovered two strategies with big potential for reducing food waste: 1) boosting confidence in choosing a dish by increasing familiarity, since foods that were dubbed more familiar were also wasted less, and 2) reducing portion size for new dishes, as more food was wasted when someone else served a novel dish.

This study is the fourth multi-site research study published in a major peer-reviewed journal by the Menus of Change University Research Collaborative (MCURC), and it highlights the importance of cross-campus research, which can improve dining hall operations in the MCURC and beyond. 

Co-founded and jointly led by Stanford University and The Culinary Institute of America, the MCURC is a global network of forward-thinking scholars, foodservice leaders, executive chefs, and administrators for colleges and universities who are accelerating efforts to move people toward healthier, more sustainable and delicious foods using evidence-based research, education and innovation. Our membership spans 250 food leaders across 60-plus institutions, and our vision is cultivating the long-term well-being of all the people and the planet—one student, one meal at a time.

Together, we work to operationalize the 24 Menus of Change Principles of Healthy, Sustainable Menus: a holistic, evidence-based framework for menu concepts, operations, foods and ingredients that is put forward by The Culinary Institute of America and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Critical to achieving our mission is translating the findings from our research pipeline into action–as well as disseminating our findings across sectors to help improve the foodservice industry at large.

Our research focuses on three key areas: plant-forward diets, drivers of consumer food choices and food waste reduction. This newly published multi-campus study is of particular value because it sits at the intersection of all three research focus areas.

The purpose of the study was to investigate the relationships of food type and personal factors with food choice, consumption and waste behaviors of college students at all-you-care-to-eat dining facilities. The amount of food taken and wasted was indirectly measured in units relative to the plate size using before and after photos taken by the diners themselves.

Five colleges and universities from the Menus of Change University Research Collaborative (MCURC) participated in this study in the spring of 2019 or the fall of 2019. The participating schools included Stanford University, the University of California Berkeley, the University of California Davis, the University of California Santa Barbara and Lebanon Valley College. A total of 296 students completed short questionnaires during dinner time across these different dining halls at these five campuses.

Based on their analysis of the data, the researchers arrived at several key hypotheses about what’s driving food waste in these contexts:

1. Waste is caused by uncertainty. Participants wasted less when they had eaten the item before. They wasted less when they were more confident that they would like the item.

2. Waste is caused by differences in perceived/actual hunger. “Not hungry” was the second most popular reason for leaving food on the plate but choosing based on hunger was not related to leaving food on the plate.

3. Waste is caused by variety seeking. More items offered in a dining facility led to more items being taken. More being taken led to more being wasted.

For onsite foodservice operators including and beyond campus dining—from K-12 school food, hospital cafeterias and corporate dining, to fine dining and fast-casual restaurants—this study presents several actionable take-home messages. Here are two simple strategies to boost diners’ confidence when making food choices, which, in turn, can reduce food waste:

1. Try multiple times, in multiple recipes, as well as sampling, in order to increase familiarity with different foods being served. Another approach is asking diners to identify the most popular new dishes and serving these more often.

2. Reduce portion size in order to make it easier to try a new food. Participants wasted less when someone else chose the portion size.

Altogether, understanding these potential food choice drivers can help foodservice operators better target healthier meals to diners while reducing food waste.

Sophie Egan is co-director of the Menus of Change University Research Collaborative