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Food waste attitudes and behaviours in young US adults

Image: USDA, Fruit bar pick, Wikimedia Commons, Public domain
Image: USDA, Fruit bar pick, Wikimedia Commons, Public domain

A survey of 18- to 24-year-old students in the US finds that very few study participants had high knowledge of the issue of food waste, and many participants estimated that they wasted less than the average American. Students often attributed blame for food waste to university dining halls, food service outlets or society in general, rather than to themselves as individuals. The paper grouped factors that both increased and reduced food waste production (depending on context) into several categories, including taste and appearance, reuse value, scheduling, personal values, portion sizes, cost, social norms, whether or not the food was prepared by the person who ate it, sharing of food, convenience, and food safety.

Participants were asked to suggest ways of reducing food waste. Answers included making food waste more a visible concern (e.g. through images or displays of statistics), incentivising waste reduction (e.g. through competitions), changing dining hall management (e.g. limiting diners to one plate), changing portion sizes, availability of food donation schemes, university-level policies (e.g. easier access to composting facilities), and educating peoples.

The paper also found that residential situation affected attitudes to food waste. For example, students who lived on campus often took more food than they needed in case they didn’t like part of it, while those living off-campus were more likely to re-use food that might otherwise have been wasted.



U.S. consumers, namely young adults, are one of the largest sources of preventable food waste. However, the antecedents of wasted food among young adults in the U.S. are unknown. This study aimed to explore the perceptions, beliefs and behaviors related to wasted food among 18- to 24-year-old adults. Fifty-eight individuals (63.8% female) with an average age of 20.2 y (±1.6) who lived in a residence where they had control over some food purchases (excluding co-op or other communal housing, and living with parents) participated in 75-min focus groups during spring of 2016. Thirty participants lived in residence halls at a university and the remaining 28 lived in off-campus dwellings. Focus group transcriptions were analyzed for themes by two investigators using a constant-comparative approach. Inductive thematic analyses provided insights that were broadly categorized into: 1) awareness and knowledge of wasted food, 2) factors that influence food waste behaviors, and 3) suggested interventions to reduce wasted food. Results provide evidence of heterogeneity in perceptions, beliefs, and behaviors related to wasted food based on dwelling type. Insights from the current study may be used to inform observational or intervention work focused on reducing wasted food by young adults.



Nikolaus, C.J., Nickols-Richardson, S.M. and Ellison, B., 2018. Wasted food: A qualitative study of US young adults' perceptions, beliefs and behaviors. Appetite, 130, pp.70-78.

Read the full paper here. See also the Foodsource resource How are food losses and waste an environmental concern?

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