Food Shaming is Out, Crooked Cucumbers are In

September 25, 2015

Efforts to slash food waste are hitting the big-time, and that’s a great thing. The scale of food waste globally and nationally is so vast, it’s hard to know where to start in terms of encouraging everyday people to change their behavior.

Americans, for example, waste at least a third of our food, at a cost of over US$165 billion dollars worth of food a year—that’s more than we spend on the federal food stamp program, national parks, public libraries, and health care for veterans combined. Around 40 percent of our entire food supply gets tossed in trashcans, dumpsters, and landfills, while millions still go hungry.

Luckily, we’re not starting this fight at zero. There is solid cognitive research on what motivates people to take action, instead of tuning out. And that could be powerfully effective in the food waste conversation. The essence of that research is that shaming doesn’t work; pointing toward larger-scale collective solutions already underway does. Humans are joiners; we don’t like to be the weird ones.

As Cal State San Marcos Professor Wesley Schultz explains so beautifully in this Mother Jones piece on water conservation (which features hilariously sexy TV ads that are worth a watch):

“All too often, the message that environmental groups and government agencies send is that most people are doing the wrong thing—and that you, the reader of the ad, should be doing something different. But that’s not a strong message, because that’s scary,” Schultz says. “I don’t want to be the deviant one. Collective actions are much stronger. It’s powerful to think, ‘Oh, most people care about saving water, most people are saving water.’”

And that’s where creating projects, messages and visuals that emphasize coolness, fun, and inclusion comes in. Our recent favorite is the Dutch group Crooked Cucumber,making delicious, high-end food from funny looking vegetables. And then there are these innovators from my home state of Colorado: craft distillers making delicious liquors with slightly overripe or not-pretty-enough fruit. They’re saving money, keeping rotting fruit out of the landfill, and making delightful things to drink.

Same goes for the many pop-up restaurants using discarded food, and of course for the hero du jour of the food waste movement, Rob Greenfield (great name!), who’s biking around the country, surviving on perfectly good discarded food, and mounting a powerful campaign to urge grocery stores to #donatenotdump their food to feed the hungry.

It’s going to take a diversity of tactics to solve the food waste problem (including some harder-hitting strategies targeting big corporate players, we would guess), but one theme should shine through: offering a positive pathway for solutions, whether at the individual or corporate level, is far more likely to inspire change than food shaming.