Study: Coaching and using apps could reduce food waste at home

By Kurt Knebusch | The Ohio State University

COLUMBUS, Ohio—One-on-one coaching paired with a tracking app could help families dramatically reduce certain types of food waste, helping to fight climate change.

That’s a conclusion of a recent study co-led by Brian Roe, the Fred N. VanBuren Professor of Agricultural Management at the Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES).

“Food waste is one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions, and it’s something almost anyone can solve in their daily lives,” said Roe, a faculty member at the Department of Agricultural, Environmental and Development Economics of CFAES. He is also a director of the Ohio State Food Waste Collaborative.

The study, Roe said, “is the first to tailor a food waste intervention to the individual circumstances of each household.”

Reduce food waste, fight climate change

Reducing food waste is important in the fight against climate change, because most of the food thrown away goes to landfills – about 52 million tons a year in the United States alone – where it rots and produces methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

App-assisted interventions, meanwhile, are increasingly being used for health and wellness, such as weight loss, healthy eating, blood sugar tracking, and mental health management.

For their study published in the journal Resources, conservation and recyclingRoe and his team investigated whether a tailored intervention — in this case, personalized one-on-one coaching aided by data collected by an app called FoodImage — can lead to bigger changes in people’s waste reduction behavior. food.

“The urgency of climate change requires that future interventions be designed to maximize potential impacts,” the researchers wrote in the study’s introduction.

Which food waste was reduced the most

Among their findings, the researchers found that the biggest effect of their intervention was in plate wastage, which dropped by 79%, with the largest portion being at dinner. Plate scraps are food left on the plate after someone has finished eating, such as the crust from a piece of pizza or a second serving that could not be finished.

The study also reported reductions in food waste sent to landfill, which fell by 25%; the quantity of selected foods, down 19%; and the amount of food consumed, down 15%. But there was no significant increase or decrease in food saved for later, storage cleanup waste, and food preparation waste.

At the same time, the study also recorded no “adverse behavioral responses” following the intervention. Roe noted, for example, that there was no overeating and no downsizing in buying fresh fruits and vegetables so as not to risk wasting them. But the study found a big increase in desirable behaviors in addition to reducing food waste, such as eating less and composting.

“Great effect” from small quantities

Roe said he was a little surprised by the 79% reduction in plate waste because “most improvements in the literature are usually around 30% for overall effect.” The 79% drop shows that “serving smaller amounts can have a big effect,” he said.

Indeed, the 79% reduction alone would prevent more than 50 pounds of plate waste per household if sustained for a year. This is based on participants who received the intervention reducing their plate waste by approximately 1 pound per week.

Reducing plate waste is “something that can be tackled at every meal, so there were plenty of learning opportunities in response to the coaching, when things like storage cleaning waste only happen.” occasionally,” Roe said.

What study participants did

Study participants who received the intervention received one-on-one coaching on ways to reduce their household food waste. The coaching included an introductory lifestyle interview on factors such as the participant’s food purchases, meal preparation and diet. The coaching also included a discussion of what the participant was willing and able to do, or not do, such as composting if they lived in a small apartment, and establishing tactics, goals and a plan. .

Participants then continued with their normal lives for a week while logging their food purchases, usage and waste on the FoodImage app, which was invented by Roe and two of the study’s other researchers. Throughout the week, participants regularly received advice on food waste by e-mail, telephone or SMS. They also received additional and adjusted coaching based on what the app had learned: which tactics worked for the participant and which didn’t?

Eat the skin, compost the core

Roe gave a hypothetical example of a study participant, a college student, who, because of the coaching he received:

  • stopped throwing away the peel of the apples they ate, a fiber-rich part, and started eating the peel instead
  • started storing their apple cores in a bag in their freezer rather than throwing them in the trash – they couldn’t compost in their apartment – then took them to their friend’s house in the countryside for composting
  • moved on to pouring himself less milk and cereal to start with – reducing the risk of not eating it all – and only pouring more if he found he was still hungry after that
  • started buying the smallest jug of milk possible and keeping it in the coldest part of the fridge so it would last as long as possible.

The intervention was not unique, Roe and colleagues wrote in their study. “It was more of a delicate balance with the coach using motivational interviewing and Socratic questioning techniques to encourage the participant to personally identify the behaviors they would like to change that most reduce food waste.”

“An Intriguing Insight”

The study had “many limitations,” Roe said, noting that it was small, short in duration and expensive to implement. “But it gives an intriguing glimpse of what an individual personalization approach could deliver,” he said.

Scaling up the study’s intervention approach, both to reduce its cost and increase its use and impact, “is where artificial intelligence would likely be needed,” Roe said. “One can imagine Noom for food waste or other sustainability practices.”

Other researchers on the study were co-leads John W. Apolzan and Corby K. Martin, as well as Danyi Qi, Robbie A. Beyl and Karissa E. Neubig, all from Louisiana State University.

The team’s journal article, “A randomized controlled trial to tackle consumer food waste with a technology-assisted sustainability intervention,” can be read online at


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