Why did I choose to research food waste?
In a past life, I spent almost a decade in the food service industry. I helped smaller restaurants streamline their processes to save money and create better methods for employees to follow according to local health department guidelines. One thing that always bothered me was seeing first-hand how much food was wasted in both small businesses and larger-scale restaurants and bakeries. I was curious how this affected other businesses and ultimately, the economy and environment.
In the United States, food waste is estimated at between 30–40 percent of the food supply. This figure, based on estimates from USDA’s Economic Research Service of 31 percent food loss at the retail and consumer levels, corresponded to approximately 133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of food in 2010. Wasted food is the single largest category of material placed in municipal landfills and represents nourishment that could have helped feed families in need. Additionally, water, energy, and labor used to produce wasted food could have been employed for other purposes. Effectively reducing food waste will require cooperation among federal, state, tribal and local governments, faith-based institutions, environmental organizations, communities, and the entire supply chain.FDA.gov
My curiosity officially peaked at this point. How do usability pain points contribute? How could we use service design to help with such a large-scale problem?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) signed a joint agency formal agreement under the Winning on Reducing Food Waste Initiative. The agreement is aimed at improving coordination and communication across federal agencies attempting to better educate Americans on the impacts and importance of reducing food loss and waste.FDA.gov
Originally, I was going to explore food waste specifically in local family-owned restaurants in the Dallas area… then the pandemic happened. Since this no longer afforded me the luxury of in-person research, I tried to think of other ways to gather data. Diary studies and remote interviews were considered, but I eventually decided to put the project on hold. I’ll be curious to come back and see how COVID-19 has affected food waste in restaurants.
A friend and mentor suggested another way to approach researching food waste: home cooks. How much food do we waste at home? I know the first thought in everyone’s mind is probably leftovers. We all do it… that weird container in the back of your fridge that has now grown hair and is probably ready to enroll in Kindergarten. But what other factors contribute to food waste at home? Are they less conspicuous? What is it about our current social approach to home cooking that lends itself to contributing to such massive food waste?
As of now, I’m working on screening requirements and interview questions for home cooks. I will also have a brief survey for each participant to fill out to gather more quantitative data, while also streamlining the interviews. My plan is to build a small team of other junior UX researchers to help conduct interviews and practice various other research methods with me to add to our portfolios.