Food waste is one of the world’s most pressing global challenges. Although food waste can be defined as food loss or spoilage during harvest [1
], food consumed [2
], food for animals [3
], or a set of social relations [4
], food waste is defined here as any edible food that is lost during the food system [5
]. To this end, researchers have increased attention on the structure, flows, and outcomes of food waste. This has included scholarship that focuses on the psychology of consumer food waste behaviors and perspectives [6
], circular economy studies to close or reduce material resource loops [11
], life-cycle perspectives to assess holistic impact of food waste flows [13
], industrial ecology studies to reassess how to reuse waste [14
], and collaborative consumption frameworks which often emphasize the value of the sharing economy as a way to reduce food waste [15
In this paper, food systems and food waste flows are conceptualized as part of a broader political ecological approach which critically analyzes the production and consumption of food in the context of capitalism [17
]. As noted by many scholars within a political ecology framework [19
], food waste continues to be conceptualized as the result of individual decisions, even though food waste is created from production to consumption in the food system [5
]. In addition, consumer food waste is often theorized as a separate and unrelated process from corporate food system flows and key manufacturers, retailers, and other food businesses even though these institutions clearly shape how, where, and when people access, consume, and waste food [26
]. Although the lens of political ecology is partial and not capable of elucidating all complexities related to the perpetuation of food waste flows, it is useful in highlighting the causes, solutions, and spatial patterns of food waste in cities and how and where food is produced and for whom and by whom food waste is generated [17
Although some locales have developed food reduction strategies especially in Europe and Asia [27
], many cities have left food waste reduction to non-state community, household, or individual actors [20
]. This ad hoc approach to urban food waste management has led to the perpetuation of food waste in many contexts as local institutions are unable to overcome the quantity and structural limitations of food waste production.
As noted in recent studies [30
], Los Angeles (LA) exemplifies many of the key challenges associated with the decentralization of food waste management. 815,000 tons or 28% of LA’s total waste is food [32
]. Although food retailers, government departments, civil society, households, and individuals work to reduce food waste in LA [32
], LA’s decentralized governance structure has weakened the city’s ability to reduce food waste [31
To this end, this paper critically analyzes undergraduate student perspectives on food waste as a case study in order to understand the challenges of food waste governance in LA. While the results of this student survey do not reflect the experiences of all LA residents, their perspectives are instructive to situate and clarify the challenges associated with conceptualizing food waste governance in LA. The students chosen for this survey are not representative of the broader population, as they are a relatively young and privileged sub-group in LA; however, they are a useful group for analysis given that they are a relatively well-educated, young-adult population which will be key to food waste management in the near future. Once they graduate, enter the workforce, start families, and institutionalize a routine of daily activities, these students will create food waste management practices at the household level and collectively contribute to city level governance of food waste.
In this way, given that these students will likely take key roles in society, they will be in a position to promote food waste management solutions that fit their lifestyles and ideologies on food waste reduction. While these strategies might include consumer driven solutions at the individual or household level, they could also incorporate structural solutions at the city or regional level to reduce food waste across the food system. These uncertainties suggest that the perspectives of university students are important, as they might suggest the range of future possibilities for food waste management in the city. In this way, this paper’s findings are relevant for multiple audiences: academia, policy makers, food corporations, and individuals concerned about food waste management.
Two research questions drive this study. First, how do students purchase, consume, and waste food, and how do students conceptualize the causes and solutions of food waste in LA? Second, what do these findings suggest for current approaches towards food waste management in cities, and how might an urban political ecology perspective highlight challenges in the governance of food waste in cities? To answer these research questions, this study utilizes interview data of key stakeholders in LA’s food system and a survey of undergraduate students at the University of Southern California (USC).
In short, findings in this paper suggest that students purchase, consume, and waste food in line with broader national trends in the U.S. To start, students suggest that consumers are the most important producer of food waste and the key to its reduction. In this way, students suggest that food waste management is determined by individual decisions and local food practices. Additionally, students indicated that the causes and solutions to food waste management lies with more responsible individual decisions and sustainable local food practices. While students noted that they may have acted differently towards food waste reduction if structural opportunities existed, results from this survey reveal that the role of corporations, global food system flows, and the political economy of food production remain relatively unrecognized by students in their perceptions of food waste. Although responsible consumer practices are clearly an important aspect of food waste reduction, findings in this paper suggest that food waste governance may be limited by a narrow local consumer focus.
The structure of the paper is as follows. This paper begins with an examination of the political ecology of urban food waste, critical assessment of food corporations in urban food waste management, and a delineation of the methods used in this study. Then, through the case study of university students at USC, this paper critically analyzes the challenges associated with food waste governance and the roles that different institutions play in food waste reduction.
2. The Political Ecology of Urban Food Waste
In the context of record amounts of global food waste [24
], food waste research has increased dramatically in the last ten years. In particular, scholars have examined the quantity and sources of food waste [5
] as well as the best ways to conceptualize food waste in the food system [19
]. Given that food waste is often oversimplified as equivalent to disposal [34
], individual decisions or behaviors, many scholars have worked to conceptualize food waste throughout the food system [1
This includes food loss and spoilage wasted during the production and immediate post-harvest phases. Food waste commonly refers to food excess at the market and consumption stages of the food system. Alternatively, some food scholars theorize food waste as a set of social relations [4
], food that is edible but wasted [5
], food that could be fed to other organisms [3
], or food needed to remain alive [2
In the research employed in this paper on food waste in LA, food waste is defined as edible food that is lost in the food system [5
]. Importantly, as noted in key research studies on food waste, approximately one-third of food produced is wasted at some point in the five stages of the food system [5
]. This includes food wasted in agricultural production, post-harvest handling and storage, processing and packaging, and distribution and consumption phases, with most U.S. food wasted at the end of the food system near retail processing and distribution or household consumption phases.
Scholars have developed many innovative approaches to examine the issue of food waste. To start, this has included a critical analysis of the psychology of consumer food waste behaviors and perspectives [6
]. Researchers have also examined food waste using a circular economy framework in which inputs and outputs, including waste flows, are minimized by closing or slowing the material resource loops [11
]. In addition, important research exists to examine food waste through a life-cycle perspective to assess the environmental impacts of all stages of a food product’s existence from extraction to consumption to waste [13
]. In the field of industrial ecology, the reduction, reuse, and recycling of food waste is a growing area of interest to rethink and leverage the value of waste in industrial resource streams [14
]. Through different conceptual frameworks, each of these perspectives provides a unique lens to examine the complexities of food waste production, regulation, reduction, and reuse, and recycling.
Importantly, scholars have also emphasized the potential of a collaborative consumption framework which allows consumers to both take and give resources through interaction with other consumers. This has been most evident in the growth of the sharing economy, as a way to reduce food waste [15
]. Although food sharing may not be a fix all to the problem food waste, it can energize people to rethink how their food system is organized and contribute to a more non-linear collaborative circular approach to resource use in food systems. While the collaborative consumption framework could be useful in a range of cultural contexts across the Global North and Global South, scholars have also pointed out that it can simultaneously reinforce existing inequalities and produce new forms of exclusion even as it opens up new spaces for innovation and partnership [36
In what follows in this paper, this study utilizes an urban political ecology framework to examine how and where food is produced and for whom and by whom food waste is generated. As noted by key urban political ecologists [18
], the methods of conceptualizing the causes, solutions, and spatial patterns of food waste in cities reflects broader ways of understanding the human-environmental interface. In particular, food systems and food waste generation should be recognized as multi-scalar socio-ecological processes operating as an outgrowth of contemporary capitalism and its contradictions and inefficiencies. As noted by numerous scholars [17
], this tension has been explored through a range of cutting-edge political ecological analyses of global and local food systems.
For many scholars, a political ecology approach has underlined that that the decentralization, privatization and devolution of food waste governance to households and local institutions may not successfully reduce food waste [20
]. Moreover, some have suggested that neoliberal governance is reinforced when people conceptualize food waste as a result of individual choices at the local level without connection to global food flows or the political economy of food production. In this context, neoliberal governance is defined as a shift towards privatization, decentralization, and devolution of state responsibilities to local non-state actors. It is associated with a smaller and punitive welfare state; loose finance rules and lower taxes; smaller and more privatized services; and, an emphasis on personal responsibility and restricted citizenship [42
]. Within this context of scholarship, some scholars emphasize that broader shifts in thinking are needed to overcome what they defined as the false corporate-consumer food waste distinction and conceptualize food waste as the result of global food flows and the political economy of food production rather than a local, consumer driven problem. In the following sections, this paper will explore these dynamics.
3. Food Corporations and Urban Food Waste
Although some U.S. cities have developed food waste programs within the last decade, many cities have been hampered by a decentralized governance structure, lack of time or interest in food waste reduction, and a strong dislike of government regulations [20
]. This has often resulted in the devolution of food waste program responsibility to local food organizations or households [7
]. Given that LA has a strongly decentralized mode of governance [44
], food waste governance has been limited in its impact or scope [31
Even though 61% of U.S. food wasted is at consumption, production (17%), handling and storage (6%), processing (9%), and distribution and market (7%) collectively total almost forty percent of total food waste [5
]. As stated in the National Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) study on U.S. food waste [24
], food waste is caused for different reasons across the food production system. During farming harvest, inclement seasonal weather, crop disease, food commodity market fluctuations, extreme quality preferences, labor expenses or shortages, and food safety concerns can all contribute to large volumes of food left on fields or lost at harvest. During the food processing state, trimming, screening, and sorting processes filter out lower quality food for disposal. In the food distribution stage, inadequate transportation, handling, refrigeration, and storage of food can lead to food loss as well as food simply being rejected by food retailers.
Scholarship on food waste in the retail sector has increased recently, as researchers have noted that food businesses contribute to food waste streams, yet little is known about the quantity, quality, or rationales for food waste remediation or reduction strategies [46
]. In addition, food corporations, including food manufacturers, processors, distributors, and retailers, also all see a value in the reduction of food waste in their food system flows, so they are similarly invested in increased research attention to the study of food waste in the food system.
However, while both scholars and food corporations are both interested to study food waste and reduce its size in the food system, there are different opinions as to why food corporations are motivated to reduce food waste in their system flows. On the one hand, some have argued that food corporations prioritize food waste reduction as a way to maximize system efficiency and reduce costs [46
]. Alternatively, other scholars [24
] note that food retailers contribute to food waste through their priorities to have fully stocked and aesthetically appealing product displays at all times, excessively large or promotional food displays, and the chucking of slightly damaged or supposedly expired foods. Also, the marketing and use of “sell by,” “best by,” and “use by” date labels facilitates consumer confusion and the throwing out of safe food. In addition, restaurants contribute to food waste through their large and inflexible portions, expansive menu options, and unexpected sales fluctuations. For these reasons, while food waste at households is caused by lack of interest or mindfulness, passive food planning, impulse or bulk purchases, and an inability to understand date labels, food retailers and restaurants clearly have a significant role in setting the context for consumers to waste food.
Thus, while almost forty percent of total food waste is produced by farmers, manufacturers, processors, wholesalers, and retailers in the production, harvesting, processing, and distribution stages of food production, this waste occurs because of inefficiencies in the food system as well as corporate goals which often prioritize profits motives and financial speculation in food markets rather than food waste reduction [3
]. In this way, some scholars suggest that the distinction between consumer food waste and corporate food waste may be a false binary given that food businesses influence the way that consumers buy, use, and waste food [1
]. As noted by numerous scholars [26
], food corporations often work diligently to project their companies as ecologically sustainable and socially just.
As part of this corporate rebranding towards sustainability, many food companies have utilized the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Food Recovery Hierarchy [53
]. In this heuristic, the EPA recommends that food companies reduce food waste in this order: first, source reduction; second, feeding hungry people in poverty; third, feeding animals; fourth, industrial uses; fifth, composting; sixth, incineration or landfill.
While the Food Recovery Hierarchy is often promoted by key industry leaders such as the U.S. Zero Waste Business Council and the Food Waste Reduction Alliance (FWRA) for its capacity to reduce food waste inefficiencies and promote corporate stewardship [54
], scholars have also suggested that it has been promoted by many food corporations to enhance company brand more than actually reduce food waste in the system [26
Since corporate food data are not publicly accessible, the FWRA food waste study of key food businesses is an important report on the state of food waste among the largest food corporations in the U.S. The 2013 FWRA study states that the largest food companies, inclusive of food manufacturers, retailers, and food service businesses, generate 48 billion tons of food waste per year in the U.S. While some of this food waste is converted to animal feed, compost, or food donations, most is landfilled. Importantly, this study suggests that 84% of food waste is generated by households and restaurants with only 5% from food corporations. These data are significantly different from other studies which suggests that food companies produce almost 40% of total food waste in the U.S. once all aspects of the food supply chain are measured [24
]. These two estimates diverge in part because of the considerable issues with how food waste is collected, measured, and compared.
In addition, these data neglect the farm production, postharvest, handling, storage, processing, packaging, distribution, and retail phases where food is wasted in the supply chain and the ways in which companies shape food consumption and waste patterns at restaurants, households, and other food outlets. Moreover, while the FWRA suggests that food corporations are collaborating to reduce food waste, most companies do not share or publicize their supply chain data to competitors or the public. For this reason, the impact of the FWRA and corporate food initiatives are quite uncertain as it provides the illusion of systemic change without accountability or measures to assess corporate stewardship or its devolution of responsibility to households and consumers [56
The methodology in this paper follows a two-step process. As described below, this study uses content analysis of interview data of key stakeholders in LA’s food system and descriptive statistical analysis of survey data of university undergraduate students in LA. While in-depth interviews help to provide important context for the governance structure of food waste in LA, the survey results provide a sampling of a small but important set of consumer perspectives on food waste in the city. In this way, each data set are critical to understanding the full picture of food waste governance challenges in LA.
In this research, 51 in-depth interviews were conducted with food retailers, LA government administrators, market vendors, food consumers, and local food organizations from 2006–2016. These interviews were conducted to understand the structure and roles of key institutions in the food system, and how different institutions produce, regulate, or reduce food waste. In this way, these interviews provided important background context for the student survey. While fieldwork was conducted between 2006–2016, most interviews were completed in 2013–2014. This included six interviews with administrators at food grocers, eleven interviews with administrators at the LA Unified School District, LA Bureau of Sanitation, and LA Solid Waste Division, eleven interviews with food vendors at LA farmers markets, twelve informal discussions with consumers at LA markets, and eight interviews with food rescue and food justice organizations.
Interviews were conducted during business hours and followed a list of questions, although the discussion was open ended. These interviews were recorded and transcribed with agreement from the interviewee. All interviews were cited in the same manner: Interviewee role, institution, date. As multiple interviews were completed on the same day, many interviews have the same interview date. Interviews were edited for grammatical clarity when necessary.
As part of these interviews, I asked interviewees about their role in the production, regulation, and reuse of food waste. Next, I utilized a triangulation method to analyze interview data across different sources in relation to each other in order to understand the relative importance of what they said and the context in which they disclosed information [58
]. These data were then used to generalize about the structure of food waste governance in LA.
Then, in line with the protocol set by scholarship on survey techniques [59
] USC’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) for Human Subjects Research, I conducted a survey of 175 undergraduate students in a general education course called Spatial Sciences 265: The Water Planet at USC in 2015. With the help of my teaching assistant, this survey was conducted twice, with 80 students surveyed in the Spring 2015 term and 95 in the Fall 2015 academic term. In Spring 2015, the enrollment of the class was 95 students, but 15 students did not come to class on the day the survey was conducted. In Fall 2015, the enrollment of the class was 120 students, but 25 students did not come to class on the day the survey was conducted. The survey responses were based on perceived food waste, not food logs or food diaries.
Students completed the survey within 30 minutes. As part of the human subjects approval process by the university, the students were informed of the study’s purpose, participant involvement, alternatives to participation, and confidentiality, given that this survey was voluntary, confidential, and not related to graded course work. While it is possible that the survey results were negatively influenced by students’ concerns about grades or participation in the survey, I had the teaching assistant fully administer the survey, in line with the human subjects approval process. Moreover, the teaching assistant and I both reiterated the anonymity and voluntary nature of the survey participation process in class. Although it is possible that some students may have felt pressure to complete the survey, the guidance that we followed from the university’s human subjects approval process ideally minimized the risk of influencing the survey results; however, these factors were taken into account upon review of the survey results.
The forty-seven questions in this survey ask students about the causes of food waste, food purchasing patterns, types of food wasted, participation in local food waste initiatives, roles of different institutions in food waste governance, and perspectives on solutions to food waste (see Appendix A
). Questions for this food waste survey were developed from the primary investigator’s field experience on food waste issues and previous surveys conducted by previous scholars [24
After completion of the survey, I conducted descriptive statistical analysis on these survey data through summary statistics and tables to summarize the results of the sample. Additionally, I conducted some exploratory inferential statistical tests, such as correlations and chi-squares. However, these analytical test results were not examined in this paper, as the data sets were either too small, non-normally distributed, derived from non-random samples, or produced test results with no statistical validity or statistical significance. Also, given that the purpose of the survey was to examine how students purchase, consume, and waste food and how students conceptualize the causes of solutions of food waste in LA, there was little interest in this paper on identifying predictive or causal relationships between data or dependent variables and independent variables. The purpose of this paper was to examine the meaning behind the students’ behaviors, practices, and perspectives on food waste in the city. While the descriptive statistical patterns identified in this paper were not inferential, predictive, or conclusive given their non-representative nature and small size, descriptive data analysis highlighted key trends in the study population.
7. Discussion and Conclusions
Although interview data of key food institutions provided important background context on the structure of the food system, this study centered on the analysis of student food waste survey data in order to understand the challenges associated with food waste governance in LA. While the income, race, and ethnic composition of this student population may have influenced their food consumption patterns and perspectives on food waste, the results of this student survey are not intended to reflect the experiences of all LA residents. Rather, their perspectives are instructive to situate and clarify the challenges associated with conceptualizing and implementing food waste management in LA today and in the near future.
Findings in this paper suggest that students purchase, consume, and waste food in line with broader national trends in the U.S. Additionally, students indicated that the causes and solutions to food waste management lies with more responsible individual decisions and sustainable local food practices. This is supported by scholarship on the psychology of consumer food waste behaviors and perspectives [6
] and collaborative consumption frameworks which often emphasize the value of the sharing economy as a way to reduce food waste [15
In line with critiques from other scholars who utilize a political ecology framework [19
], students in this survey continue to conceptualize food waste as the result of individual decisions, even though food waste is created from production to consumption in the food system [5
]. Additionally, this idea persists even as scholars have suggested that the privatization, decentralization, and devolution of food waste governance to local food organizations and households may not reduce food waste [20
]. In addition, consumer food waste is often theorized as a separate and unrelated process from corporate food system flows and key manufacturers, retailers, and other food businesses, even though scholars have argued that these institutions clearly shape how, where, and when people access, consume, and waste food [26
]. Although responsible consumer practices are clearly an important aspect of food waste reduction, survey results interpreted through an urban political ecology lens may suggest that food waste governance could be limited by a narrow local consumer focus.
While consumers are the key source of food waste in the U.S., almost 40% of food waste is produced by farmers, manufacturers, processors, wholesalers, and retailers in production and distribution. This waste exists as a result of food system inefficiencies and corporate speculation in food markets [3
]. As noted by key scholars, the distinction between consumer food waste and corporate food waste may be artificial, as businesses influence the purchasing and waste patterns of consumers [1
]. As food companies project their image to be more sustainable and socially just, some scholars have noted that many food corporations also strategically point to consumers as the cause of food waste [51
As noted in other key studies [26
], food companies often prioritize food waste management solutions which are highly visible and promote the company’s brand, such as donating food to local food organizations and repurposing food for alternative energy sources. Often, these initiatives are hard to measure, company-specific, and narrow technical fixes. Although corporate initiatives help to institutionalize progressive environmental practices into the market, some scholars have suggested that these initiatives may be often driven by market logics rather than environmental or social justice [51
In this way, corporate food waste management may be limited by its own contradictions, as the producers of food waste receive benefits from its existence and deflect attention from their own internal food waste flows. In addition, many corporate food initiatives are dependent on wealth accumulation as a source of charity, yet this same drive to build corporate wealth is also related to uneven patterns of food access and the need for food charity [50
Within the context of LA’s decentralized governance structure and low levels of participation in food waste programs, it is not surprising that students conceptualize food waste as an individual problem. Even so, data in this paper suggest that students may reinforce neoliberal governance when they conceptualize food waste as the result of individual choices, personal responsibility, and community engagement at the local level unrelated to global food flows or the political economy of food production, in line with other key studies on this topic [20
Building on the extensive literature on scale and food activism [41
], this research suggests that broader shifts in thinking may be needed to conceptualize food waste beyond a local, household consumer driven problem. While the results from the student survey are clearly not sufficient in their own right to prove this point, they do suggest that some of the above concerns are possible limitations in the debate around food waste management in cities. Moreover, although a critical political ecology perspective is clearly not capable of explaining all aspects of food waste management, such as the psychology of food waste behaviors or individual food waste patterns, it is instructive in highlighting some limitations with food waste management associated with structures of power, such as food companies and government, and the uneven processes of food production, distribution, and waste creation.
While this research has examined student perspectives on food waste in order to understand food waste management, key studies have argued that the dual challenges of food insecurity and food waste cannot be overcome by amending the existing food system [50
]. Food insecurity, hunger, and food waste may persist, at least in part, because of uneven capitalist accumulation and financial speculation in the global food system as well as economic and social inequality associated with poverty and income inequality.
To this end, future research should examine the structure and development of food waste reduction schemes within the cultural and historical context of the urban political economy at particular locales. While scholars should measure the size, scope, and impacts of food reduction schemes, the results of this paper’s survey and related data findings suggest that food waste reduction may be strongly impacted by the relationship between social attitudes towards food waste and the governance structures which enable or inhibit such actions to be realized. Student perspectives at USC clearly represented one small population within LA, yet they stated that they might have acted differently towards food waste reduction if structural opportunities existed for them to act more proactively towards food waste reduction. In this way, students could be in a better position to contribute to food waste reduction as consumers as well as be part of a broader shift towards structural food system level solutions to food waste reduction as well.