3 ways businesses can target consumer food waste

3 ways businesses can target consumer food waste

Note: This is the second of a two-part series on food waste. The first part is available here: 3 reasons businesses should target consumer food waste.

Americans love convenience, and throwing away unwanted food is very convenient. My recent article describes why businesses should encourage their customers to throw away less food. Next comes the question of how: How can businesses target consumer food waste? Let's look at the options. Note that your business situation and customers are unique, so you will want to use a customized strategy.

Consumer-facing food waste reduction strategies fall into three categories:

  1. Helping customers buy less food.
  2. Helping customers use food they buy.
  3. Helping customers understand the impacts of food waste.

1. Helping customers buy less food  only what they need.

Reducing restaurant food portions can reduce food waste (and overeating) when done creatively. Table 24 restaurant in Orinda, Calif., has two kids' menus: the Middles Menu for children ages 10 to 16 and the Littles Menu for children age 9 and under. They do this to attract families with multiple kids — a 2-year-old does not eat as much food as a 13-year-old, and a 12-year-old does not eat an adult portion. They notice that the portions are right-sized and plate waste is minimal.

Also consider the strategy used by another Bay Area restaurant, The Sunny Side Café, which serves reduced portions of home fries and offers free refills to its customers. Or try cutting portions without cutting prices, as Las Vegas' MGM Grand Hotel did to reduce food waste. Customers perceived good value even though they received less food for their money, and plate waste went down between 15 and 20 percent during an 18-month period.

Buffet settings provide two other food waste reduction opportunities — trayless dining and cook-to-order service. By switching to trayless dining, college campuses throughout the country have reduced consumer food waste by approximately 30 percent (plus achieved big savings in water, energy and cleaning products). And by transitioning to a cook-to-order approach, the MGM Grand buffet, for one, is saving $8,000 a month in food costs, contributing to an 80 percent reduction in food waste and nearly 10 percent increase in customer satisfaction scores.

Grocery stores also can take action to discourage overbuying. Consider creative solutions that appeal to customers. For example, instead of "buy one get one," try "buy one get one later" promotions, as the U.K.'s Sainsbury's and Tesco supermarket chains did in an effort to reduce consumer food waste. Or offer bulk food purchasing where manufacturer food containers might be too large for customers. At Austin, Texas, grocer in.gredients, customers bring in their own containers or use the store's reusable and compostable containers to buy exactly the amount of food they need.

2. Helping customers use food they buy.

Restaurant customers generally don't eat 17 percent of served food and leave 55 percent of potential leftovers on their plates, according to the NRDC. Restaurants can encourage customers to take home leftovers and provide guidance on using them. In 2004 Buca di Beppo restaurants partnered with the American Dietetic Association (formerly the ADA, now the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics) and ConAgra Foods to develop food safety labels for leftover and carryout containers.

According to a Technomic-reported 2009 restaurant survey, U.S. customers are looking for this type of guidance: 34 percent of diners wanted to know when leftovers were no longer safe to eat and 43 percent wanted instructions on storing, reheating and serving. In a prior 2004 survey for the ADA and ConAgra, a full 75 percent of diners said they wanted this guidance.

Grocery stores can employ their own strategies to help customers use more of their food purchases. In the U.K., the largest grocers deliberately sell a wide variety of foods in split packs and resealable packages in order to reduce food waste.

Several U.K. grocers label pre-packaged food items and fresh produce bags with information on whether they are "best kept" in the refrigerator, in a cool dark place or at room temperature. The Co-operative Group even prints storage instructions directly on its fresh produce bags for bagging loose items. These strategies fit well with an extensive 2011 U.K. survey, which showed that a huge majority of respondents — more than 90 percent — would find storage guidance or tips on-pack to be "useful" or "very useful."

3. Helping customers understand the impacts of food waste.

Think of food waste as a subject for customer dialogue. Wasting food means wasting money. But most Americans don't know that the average household spends $2,200 per year on wasted food. They also don't realize that the numbers will get worse, since analysts predict average food basket prices will rise 15 percent between now and June.

When people understand the dollar impacts, they can be motivated to change their behaviors. This certainly has been true in the U.K., where Waste & Resources Action Programme's "Love Food, Hate Waste" campaign showed people how "it pays to be a Food Lover," contributing to an 18 percent reduction in household food waste between 2006 to 2007 and 2010.

In buffet settings, where food waste has zero cost to consumers, other incentives work better. Food-service distributor Sodexo launched a "Stop Wasting Food" campaign at college campuses in 2010, which focused on curbing climate change instead of saving money. The campaign calls on students to take two small steps to curb climate change — take only what they plan to eat and come back for more if they are still hungry.

Without a doubt, changing customer behaviors around food waste is very challenging. The strategies and messages that work for one business and its customers might not work for another. The best advice is to investigate these options and envision new ones that fit your business and your customers.

Photo credit: zmkstudio / Shutterstock.