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Tammara Soma Banner By Heather Sanders

It is estimated that worldwide one third of the food we produce gets thrown out. In Canada, household food waste can be as high as 20%. This impacts the food supply chain, cost of food, food security, and the environment. Food production needs land and fresh water, while food transportation and waste creates greenhouse gases. In fact, if food waste was a country, it would be the third highest emitter of greenhouse gases, behind the United States and China.

SFU resource and environmental management professor and co-founder of SFU’s Food Systems Lab Tammara Soma wants to understand why household food waste is so high, and what types of interventions could help reduce it. She and colleagues Belinda Li and Virginia Maclaren, developed the first study of its kind to apply the Motivation Opportunity Ability (MOA) framework to evaluate food waste awareness campaigns.

The MOA framework, developed by McInnis et al. (1991), is a consumer behavior model based on the idea that an individual’s actions support their interests (motivation); that they have options available (opportunity); and the skills or resources needed to complete an action (ability). Soma’s study, An evaluation of a consumer food waste awareness campaign using the motivation opportunity ability framework was funded by the Weston Foundation Seeding Food Innovation grant.

The researchers designed a 12-week household food waste campaign based in the Greater Toronto area and recruited 500 participants to study three types of interventions, plus a control group with no interventions. The information-only campaign group received fun and informative materials (booklet, newsletters, fridge magnet) with facts on the environmental and financial costs of food waste, tips, tricks and recipes. The information-community engagement group received the same materials and was invited to attend child-friendly learning workshops that included games and prizes. The information-gamification group received the info package and were invited to participate in an online game where they could earn points towards grocery cards. All aspects of the study were designed to provide the Motivation, Opportunity, and Ability to reduce food waste – through raising awareness, providing incentives, and teaching ways to prevent it.  

“We wanted to design a study that was inclusive, fun and easy to participate in,” says Soma. “We hosted workshops and focus groups at transit-friendly and family-friendly locations at convenient times, as community engagement was very important to sharing and gathering information.”

Food Waste Campaign
The cover of the food waste campaign information booklet. The campaign materials and educational booklet can be found here.

At the close of the campaign, the researchers hosted focus groups to gather feedback on the effectiveness of the three interventions. Overall, participants felt that the campaign made them more informed and motivated to try new approaches to reduce food waste. The educational and informational nature of the campaign was very effective in improving their awareness and ability to make changes in food practices. Through the lens of the MOA framework, it was clear that the motivation and ability categories were the strongest areas of improvement.

However, some participants did not feel the need to invest time or effort in making changes, and spoke of the challenges of doing so. A common theme expressed in the focus group was that there are more opportunities to create food waste than there are opportunities to reduce or prevent it. For example, retailers and marketers encourage purchasing larger amounts of food for lower prices. Participants repeatedly commented on the need to balance the economic value of food versus buying more to “save money.” Furthermore, all participants who took part in impulse buying were aware they do not really need all the food they buy from sales and discounts.

Soma and colleagues note several studies have shown shopping in smaller amounts more frequently can help reduce food waste. A “buy today eat today” approach to shopping should be encouraged, however, a lack of food system planning and urban sprawl necessitates the use of cars to access grocery stores and promotes the need for “stocking up.”

In addition, it is important to be cautious of the “licensing effect.” For example, improved green waste storage and pickup, paired with the knowledge that food will be composted rather than landfilled meant that some study participants were less concerned about reducing the amount of food wasted. “Overall, we found challenges within food systems that contribute to food waste,” explains Soma. “While consumers possess the motivation and ability to reduce their household food waste, there are many barriers that prevent them from acting in accordance with their values and motivations.”

The researchers recommend further studies take into consideration the MOA framework to develop further interventions and build awareness and motivation with consumers. Campaigns like these are just one way we can move the pendulum of awareness and ability towards positive environmental behavior, it is only one tool of many required to support changes in food-related practices and to address the issue of food waste in the long term,” says Soma.

As the research points to the structural barrier in food systems – store promotions, portion discounts, bulk buying etc. that contribute to food waste, she recommends transformations in our food systems. “Our food system is predicated on encouraging overconsumption and overproduction. What this study shows is that beyond raising awareness we need to create an enabling environment that nudges people towards more sustainable behaviours. While there are no easy solutions, retailers will need to play an important role in how they market and curate food. Meanwhile, planners need to consider shortening the food supply chain and developing more closed loop food systems in cities to enable people to change their everyday food practices for the better."

Individuals with an SFU login can access the journal article for free by clicking here

Learn More:
Faculty profile Page: Tammara Soma
Food Systems Lab