Food waste. Sounds ugly, don’t it? It sure is, especially when you get into the nitty-gritty of the numbers: at least a third of U.S. food is wasted either on the farm, at the grocery store, or in our homes. In a world of hungry people, methane pollution from rotting food in landfills, and agricultural pollution killing rivers and oceans around the world, that’s epic.

So let’s flip the script.

What if we stopped that waste, or even just halved it? (You know, like those fancy half-avocados with Himalayan sea salt they sell for US$7 at the Paleo-café?)

That would be even more epic.

From redirecting food supplies to reduce hunger and poverty, to helping municipalities, schools, and companies save money, to reducing climate emissions from agriculture, stopping food waste would be a huge step toward building a more sustainable food system.

So how do we place food waste on the front burner, so to speak?

From a communications perspective there are three critical audiences whose behavior needs to change to move the needle on food waste:

Regular folks: all of us who are buying food, and wasting it at home and in restaurants.
Retailers: the big businesses most of us buy from whose practices are contributing to the problem, big-time.
Institutions: the big buyers (think schools, the armed forces, big corporations) whose purchasing decisions and practices have an outsized impact on the previous two categories.

Now we know that every social change effort needs a great story. And every great story has a heroine (or, ok, I guess a hero), a villain, and an epic battle. When it comes to food waste, making average Joes and Josephinas the villains—even though we may well BE the villains—might not be the swiftest path to transformation. Why? Because guilt has never been a particularly effective emotion to leverage for social change.

Here are a couple of alternative narratives. Try featuring the big bad companies, whose blindness is causing so much waste, as the villains. A story like that could even position regular people as the heroes, those who can help slay the dragon of waste and hunger and pollution, by refusing to patronize wasteful businesses.

Campaigns targeting institutions might use similar story tactics. Focusing our energies on a demand for change at an institutional level (which incidentally will help support change at the individual level) could be a great way to get the ball rolling.

Here’s an example of what we mean: Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t launch the Birmingham Bus Boycott with a demand for individual whites to change their minds about their own racism. He and his compatriots found a target that made sense, and used a strategy of organizing around that target to raise the issue of racism in a way that reached far and wide.

The same kind of opportunity could exist around food waste. Because food waste is something almost every American has a personal experience with on a daily basis—whether at home, work, or eating out—it presents a unique opportunity to talk to Americans about the resources that go into producing food, and therefore agriculture’s environmental footprint.

To effect change, we need a story with a clear path to change. Starting with campaigns focused on retailers, as has been done in the UK, might be a smart communications move at this stage of the game.

We’ll explore this idea, and other food waste communications challenges, in upcoming blog posts.

This is the first in a series of communications-focused blog posts exploring existing efforts to tackle food waste.