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To reduce food waste, we actually need more grocery stores

Counterintuitive though it may seem, new research shows it could be a way to reign in shopping, leaving less food to go mouldy in the fridge.
February 7, 2020

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Researchers have described an unexpected solution to food waste: simply build more places where people can buy groceries. While that would seem to fuel excessive consumerism, it actually does the opposite, their new study shows – reducing the quantities of food that people buy, and thus leaving less leftover to fester in landfills and belch greenhouse gases into the air.

Looking at multiple different cities and towns across the United States, the researchers calculated that increasing the density of grocery stores in each place would reduce the amount of time it takes for people to get to the store, which would in turn drive a shift towards more frequent trips, to buy smaller quantities of food. 

The researchers’ logic is built on the fact that when people live further away from grocery stores, they have a tendency to ‘stock up’ with larger amounts of food to avoid having to make another tiresome trip to the store later on. And because humans are bad at gauging in advance how much food they will need, that often leads to overshopping – and later on, ditching the excess fresh produce that has gone mouldy in the fridge.

But if people have more grocery stores closer by, they tend to shop more thriftily based on their short-term food needs, because they know they can easily revisit the shop later on. 

Enabling this shift would require swapping big grocery stores scattered infrequently across an urban area, for a greater density of smaller stores in the same space. Even modest increases in the number of shops would help, the researchers found in their analysis. Looking at Chicago, between only 3 and 4 more stores per 10 square kilometres could cut local food waste by almost 10%. Since food waste is as emissions-intensive as road transport, this relatively small change would be the equivalent of switching 20,000 cars from fossil fuels to electricity. Added to that, Chicago residents could save up to 4% on their grocery bills, thanks to their more efficient shopping.

Previous research already showed that the number of stores in an area can alter shopping patterns. But this study is the first to examine how increasing the number of stores would in turn alter patterns of food waste.

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However, that wasn’t necessarily true at the retail level. In fact, the researchers found that if the number of grocery stores increased in a given area, those shops start to waste more food. That’s because they have to deal with more irregular shoppers and more variable demand – which can make it harder to predict and prepare stocks.  

That said, the researchers point out that retail waste is a much smaller concern than consumer-level waste: households reportedly waste 10 times more food than grocery stores, they say. 

In all the cities the researchers included in their analysis – which included Manhattan, Chicago, and Los Angeles – they found there was a a capacity to increase store density, which would lead to reductions in food waste. While Chicago offered the greatest potential for more stores, Manhattan currently comes the closest to optimizing store density, which gives a picture of what a city might need to look like to help us achieve this goal.

But obviously, we can’t snap our fingers and transform the layout of huge cities to contain more food shops. And it seems a little far fetched to hope that reducing food waste would be enough of a motivation for this to happen, in any case.

Yet, there are signs that around the world, we are “reviving those small corner stores, mom and pop stores, smaller-format stores,” says lead author Elena Belavina, who is an associate professor at the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell SC Johnson College of Business. This growing trend could be an opportunity for urban planners and policymakers to grasp a hold of, and gradually bring down urban food waste.

“Even small increases in store density can lead to substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions,” the researchers write. And as with so many potential solutions to climate change, it is the combination of many creative approaches – each coming at the problem from a slightly different angle – that seems most likely to make the difference. Even if that simply means a shorter trip to buy your snacks at the grocery store. 

Source: Belavina, E. “Grocery Store Density and Food Waste.” Manufacturing and Service Operations Management. 2020.
Image: Gayle Nicholson via flickr


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