Skip to content
March 23rd, 2021
Energy • Health • Innovation

Food: Too good to waste (FTGTW) network, U.S.

Around 40 percent of food consumed in the U.S. is wasted, leading to increased greenhouse gas emissions and economic losses. From 2012 to 2014, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the West Coast Climate and Materials Management Forum launched a pilot food waste reduction program for households called Food: Too Good To Waste.

Seventeen local community organisations across fifteen communities in the U.S. used ‘Community-Based Social Marketing’ campaigns to push for changes in behaviour related to food waste. The pilots provided several lessons on types of messaging that resonated most with communities, the importance of in-person engagement over predominantly online strategies, and the importance of peer learning networks to share knowledge, resources and support among implementing partner organisations.

Background and Context

Minimising or reducing domestic food waste has huge potential to bring about both environmental and economic benefits, as it is the largest discard group of Municipal Solid Waste in the U.S.1 Approximately 40 percent of the food produced or imported for consumption in the U.S. in 2010 was wasted and 97 percent of this is lost in landfills or to combustion with energy recovery.2,3,4 As it decomposes in the landfills, the wasted food causes 20 percent of the total amount of U.S. methane emissions.5,6

Before 2012, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had been running programs aimed at reducing food waste in the commercial and institutional sectors, such as the Food Recovery Challenge, but no effort had been made at the time to target households. “We realised that no one was doing anything focused on prevention on the consumer side.” stated Ashley Zanolli, from EPA region 10’s office in Seattle.7 Consequently, EPA Regions 9 and 10 convened the West Coast Climate and Materials Management Forum (CMMF) to start designing a residential pilot program in the U.S. against food waste.8,9

The Initiative

The plans for the Food: Too good to waste (FTGTW) initiative were put in place in 2011 by the CMMF, a partnership with twenty‐five state, city and county government members across western U.S., convened by the EPA.10 Their focus is to develop and share ideas and strategies aimed at transforming sustainable materials and management policies and practices into climate actions.11

The FTGTW initiative drew inspiration from The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) sponsored project Love Food, Hate Waste in the United Kingdom.12 FTGTW engaged households via a number of Community-Based Social Marketing (CBSM) campaigns aimed at supporting behaviour-change around food consumption practices that effectively reduce food waste and its negative impacts.16 CBSM is "a simple four-step process which involves a) selecting a behavior or activity and identifying the barriers and benefits to that behavior or activity, b) developing a strategy to remove the barriers and promote the benefits of an activity using ‘tools’ proven to be effective in changing behavior, c) piloting this strategy; and d) conducting an evaluation of the strategy once it has been implemented across a community."13 The initiative was also designed to collect and analyse results from the ongoing campaigns in order to facilitate the design of future food waste reduction CBSM initiatives.17 In addition, the EPA was interested in the environmental benefits and how the pilots could be integrated into existing programs by local community organisations.18 

Between 2012-2014, EPA introduced several pilot FTGTW projects across fifteen communities with seventeen local partner organisations. To prepare and plan these pilots, EPA conducted a significant amount of background research to identify desired food consumption behaviors and target groups for the messaging.14,15

How was the issue of food waste presented and communicated?

Before the FTGTW pilots

Before the pilot was implemented across the different regions, there was no targeted communication with communities on food waste prevention or reduction.19

To build a strategy around communication during the pilots, the EPA set out to identify possible behaviours that would resonate with households and could be used as targets to help reduce food waste. EPA reviewed available consumer behavior and sustainable consumption literature (with a focus on notes from the UK WRAP Program), held workshop sessions at a CMMF meeting with its members, and interviewed households that consciously practiced zero-waste behaviours.20 Based on the combined findings of these assessments, five behaviours with the highest potential for impact with households were identified to be part of the final toolkit:

  1. Get Smart: See How Much Food (and Money) You Are Throwing Away

  2. Smart Shopping: Buy What You Need 

  3. Smart Storage: Keep Fruits and Vegetables Fresh

  4. Smart Prep: Prep Now, Eat Later 

  5. Smart Saving: Eat What You Buy.21

To identify messaging and strategies for the identified behaviours, key barriers and benefits for each behaviour were analysed among different community groups. In addition, previous interviews with other food waste organisations in the UK, Minnesota, Portland and San Francisco were also reviewed.22 Some toolkits used in the FTGTW pilots were chosen from existing guides, such as the meal planner and fruit and vegetable storage guide developed by the U.S. non‐profit organisation Eureka Recycling.23

During the FTGTW pilots

The messaging materials were then piloted across three initial states in the counties of Boulder (Colorado), San Benito (California) and King (Washington) to further adapt the messaging to different audiences.24 The partners who helped deliver the pilots were community and waste departments, and non-profits (housing groups), and the engagement activities were dependent on the resources available to each organisation. The target population was families with young children (as they had been identified as the group that waste most food) and young adults (ages 18-30, who live a dynamic lifestyle). As cost savings were typically found to be important for families with young children, they were good targets, amenable to messaging around adopting eating older stock and leftovers. On the other hand, younger full-time workers were identified as a good target for messaging around ‘buy less but better’.25 Children were also found to play an important role in bringing the message of minimising food waste home to parents.

Different pilots had been located across the country, in both urban and rural settings, and involved diverse community groups (geographic, income and cultural).26 Two examples are explored below - the pilot at King County was one of the earliest FTGTW pilot programs, which held many program lessons for the FTGTW team, while the pilot at Rhode Island was one of the later, more successful FTGTW pilot programs.

King County Pilot

In the King County pilot in Washington state, participants were brought on-board through a website, and provided with online resources on how the food waste issue connects to climate change.27 Families with children in the 4th grade were the target audience. One tool was introduced each week in the five-week program, and teachers also provided the children with daily tips to discuss with their parents.28 The county modified and improved their approach to outreach and recruitment over three years, as a response to feedback and lessons learned. 

In the first year, EPA partnered with a local elementary school through the Green Schools program and a consulting firm.29,30 The pilot recruited 47 families via email, and the families that finished the five-week challenge (13/47) were given a grocery store certificate.31 The following year, the campaigners attempted to scale up the campaign by dedicating a website and social media campaign to the project, with all the tools and strategies available online. However, the approach failed to retain participants, perhaps due to its ‘only online’ strategy that left all responsibility of completing the food challenge with the participants themselves.32 In the final year, King County changed its outreach to be more relational with regular tabling and support sessions at farmers markets and grocery stores to offer support to those participating. The result was that 71 households were recruited, with a retention rate of 75 percent.33 

Rhode Island Pilot

In Rhode Island, EPA partnered with the Rhode Island Food Policy Council in 2014 to carry out the FTGTW campaign for 40 households. They took a different approach to outreach and recruitment, aiming to tailor the strategy to local needs with feedback from earlier food waste pilots.34 As the county is so small, recruitment was done entirely through networking. Participants were from an upscale apartment complex and the lower income Providence Housing Authority.35 The FTGTW was made available in Spanish to reach local families, and interactions were personal, with program information presented in-person at gatherings with cooking demonstrations.36 Each participant was given a scale, a bin, and a code number for entering their data. In addition, low-income participants received community credits as a further incentive to participate.37 Three in-person group meetings with the participants were held throughout the six-week challenge, to offer support, and share experiences, results and tips on how to continue minimising food waste.38 The pilot also inspired participants to continue to spread the message of reducing food waste on their own through networking with friends.39 This has resulted in a ‘train-the-trainer’ model to be developed by the FTGTW Working Group to support a continued interest in the project, as Rhode Island is now aiming for a zero-waste goal.40

Comparing the pilots

From comparing the pilots’ different approaches, it appears that in-person communication and intervention had a stronger impact on behaviour change, recruitment, and retention than social media or online interventions alone. However, media and online interventions did have an important role to play in achieving broader campaign objectives around increasing awareness and engagement with the community that were not initially part of the pilots.41 The type of messaging that was most effective in changing people’s behaviour towards reducing food waste, according to participants themselves, was messaging that focussed on ‘not wasting money’ and highlighting the amount of individual food waste a household contributed to.42 

After the FTGTW pilots

The FTGTW program is still ongoing. The program’s toolkit, information and implementation guides are still available on the EPA website.44,45

The EPA implementation guide provides community partners with detailed advice on how to implement the FTGTW program in their community. In terms of outreach, the guide recommends making plans that take into account ‘appropriate communication channels, venues and community partners for reaching the intended target audience’.46 Personal contact, early and often, when delivering the messages was highlighted as particularly important to influence food waste behaviour change and committing participants until the end of the program. Using people who already exert influence in a person’s social network to deliver the message was also recommended based on its high probability in reinforcing the message.47 

We are trying to create a social norm that says food waste is not aligned with our community values. We know that people receiving a message one-on-one are more likely to change behaviour, and that certain people in the community are influencers. Part of our effort is to identify communities within communities that will help spread the message.” stated Viki Sonntag, behavioral economist and lead researcher in the EPA’s Food: Too Good To Waste programme.48

What was the extent and nature of citizen collaboration in the Programme?

Citizen collaboration was facilitated through the community organisations who signed up to partner with the FTGTW programme. Strategies for engaging with the residents included gatherings and workshops with food and beverages, in order to share food waste avoidance strategies and personal experiences with wasted food (social learning), distribute tools and foster network commitment and behaviour change.50 The idea behind frequent engagement is explained by EPA as something that most likely will enhance the sense of belonging to a group and increase pro-social motivation.51 Another engagement technique used was to engage participants through various learning techniques, such as hands-on workshops in which a chef presented measurement techniques and strategies.52 This type of approach was chosen for its potential to reduce the knowledge barrier associated with minimising food waste.53

What was the level of action addressed by the public engagement?

Public engagement was primarily facilitated at an individual/household level, using messaging about the five behaviour change targets. The goal of the engagement at this level was to drive behaviour change that lasted beyond the end of the programme, as this had been found to be true following the UK WRAP campaign. Although it was not a motive of the FTGTW campaigns, getting families and friends to spread the message around food waste did happen organically in some pilots like in Rhode Island County.54 The secondary goal of public engagement in the pilot initiatives was to learn lessons about how to scale up the campaign nationally, and to understand costs of different types of campaigns.55

The Public Impact

All 17 pilots were successful in providing new insights into the way behavior change programs that reduce food waste can be adopted.56 

  • Household reductions of up to 60% of edible food and 15-25 % of overall food waste are consistently demonstrated. 

  • In the King County pilot, fifty-three households participated and reported 27-39% reduction of edible food waste

  • In the Rhode Island pilot, of the forty households that participated 48-55% reduced their edible food waste.

Further Considerations and Lessons from this Case

From CPI’s extensive work on public engagement, we have found three important drivers to public impact that are relevant to discuss when designing public engagement processes around climate change: Enabling adaptability and learning; Designing for Inclusion; and Embracing Complexity. We discuss the relevance of each to the case study below:

Enabling Adaptability and Learning

The Food: Too Good To Waste program operated an adaptive model of working, regularly seeking feedback from participants, and experimenting with different types of outreach and engagement strategies with different community groups based on rate of uptake. In addition, the programme tapped into the regional knowledge and community connections of local organisations by making them official partners in delivering and implementing the campaigns. This place-focussed approach of the program enabled better uptake with communities as they saw local community-based organisations as trustworthy and legitimate. 

The overall campaign model was also open to feedback from local implementation partners, while the campaigns were on-going. Community partners and EPA staff set up a peer-learning initiative that enabled networked information-sharing. The peer-learning structure was set up in a way that the different partners could learn from each other by sharing successful updates, new resources being developed, or other lessons learnt through regular online and in-person check-ins. In some cases the partners also shared the costs of campaign development between them. Through such network models, the FTGTW partners were able to share formal and tacit knowledge around practice, build shorter and more effective feedback loops, and experiment and adapt the campaign in ways that are difficult to do in isolation.57 The peer group learning network,today, is an active network of approximately 190 members across the U.S. and is led and facilitated by the EPA.58

Designing for Inclusion

In an effort to build measurable impact on food waste reduction amongst households, the FTGTW pilots targeted households with the highest food waste consumption numbers and those who were likely to relate to the campaign messaging around the chosen behaviours. This meant that EPA’s strategy was not to strive for universal participation, or an exact representative sample of the community. Instead, families with young children and young people with dynamic lifestyles, were the primary targets. However, different pilots made various efforts to involve communities and individuals from different socio-economic backgrounds, such as in the Rhode Island Pilot. In this case, active efforts were made to understand the values and incentives for marginalised communities to reduce food waste, and support networks were created to ensure they could discuss their experiences, challenges and identify collective strategies to keep food waste to a minimum. 

While further information and lessons from the engagement with marginalised seldom-heard communities aren’t publicly available, avenues for deeper research include understanding pilot communities as embedded in wider social, economic, and cultural structures that may prevent the adoption of less wasteful practices. For example, an individual’s access to storage (eg: fridge) facilities, shopping facilities (eg: big supermarkets, local stores, farmers markets), costs of food in different places, access to income support, unpredictability of daily life are all factors that play significant roles in shaping household food waste practices. These variances require deeper study and understanding in order to systematically tackle food waste challenges.

Embracing Complexity

Reducing food waste is a vast, complex national challenge that isn’t just associated with households. In order to tackle the issue effectively, a joined-up approach involving government departments, city governments, counties, households, supermarkets and companies is key. The FTGTW programme, through its focus on households, currently draws limited attention to the interdependencies between different actors and their decisions. For example, in grocery chains, the quantities of perishable food (typically vegetables, bread etc.) made available in single plastic packages can be quite high. Purchasing even a single pack, in these cases, inevitably leads to some wastage when purchased by people who live alone or as couples, unless consumed quickly before its expiry date. In contrast, the prices of non pre-packed foods or smaller packages are comparatively high. Additionally, producers and sellers induce consumers to buy more than necessary by introducing discounts or special offers, particularly with perishable food items, thereby increasing the likelihood of food waste. However, so far there is limited evidence to suggest that actors across the food value chain were brought together in FTGTW pilots to discuss and identify their individual and collective roles in bringing down food waste.

In addition, a core objective of the FTGTW project was to evaluate and assess the success and impact of each pilot and what that meant for a scaled-up national campaign. As specific food waste challenges and engagement methods depend on what resources the participating organisations have, different levels and types of data were collected, complicating comparisons between them.59 The cost of choosing to obtain detailed food waste data from the households for the purpose of impact measurement, could mean that participants are less meaningfully engaged as community organisations divert resources to measurement and build strategies to more effectively measure. Given the complexity and uncertainty inherent in measuring and comparing data across varied contexts, and further building an effective national strategy on the basis of local pilot lessons, it is likely better suited for campaigns to focus on continuous measurement to deepen engagement with communities rather than collecting evidence solely for the purpose of evaluating success, and extrapolating the results to make a case for scale.


Engaging the Public on Climate Change

Our Case Study Compendium provides practitioners with a framework to unpack different approaches, outlining how public engagement can better embrace the complexity of climate issues.

Read the report