Put on your marketing hat, then set these recent announcements side-by-side:
- Before the COVID-19 pandemic, 10.5 percent of all US households experienced food insecurity in 2019.
- With the pandemic recession, nearly 1 in 4 US households have experienced food insecurity this year.
- According to the US Food and Drug Administration, 30-40 percent of the food supply is wasted.
The US Department of Agricultural says that “reducing food losses by just 15 percent would provide enough food for more than 25 million Americans every year.”
Seeing food waste and insecurity side-by-side brings to mind words like irony, tragedy–as well as marketing, challenge, and opportunity.
Defining Food Insecurity
The U.S. Department of Agriculture identifies several characteristics of food insecurity on a spectrum of food insecurity.
Marginal food security means you feel anxious about the quality or quantity of food in your house, but haven’t yet changed your diet or food intake. Maybe you worry about how to pay for groceries on top of everything else, but you haven’t needed to alter your habits.
Low food security means you are experiencing reduced quality, variety, or desirability of food that you can access and afford. But, you haven’t had to reduce your food intake. At this stage, you might be buying different, cheaper brands. Maybe you’re even shopping at different, cheaper stores. But, you’re still getting by.
Very low food security means you experience multiple episodes of disrupted eating patterns and reduced eating. Now, you can no longer access or afford enough food to sustain your previous diet.
Sources of Food Waste
Edible and nutritious food can go to waste at many points in the supply chain, for many reasons.
Bad weather, in part driven by climate change, can ruin edible crops before they can be harvested.
Processing and distribution problems can prevent food from reaching consumers. For instance, the pandemic has forced a decline in eating at restaurants. But the restaurant food supply chain is different than the retail supply chain. Switching food supply chains early in the pandemic took time, which meant some food spoiled before it could reach retail consumers.
Then there’s just our poor planning and over consumption. We buy more than we need, without plans for cooking and storing food.
Hunger is More Than One Person’s Empty Stomach
Hungry can seem like an intensely personal problem. That’s partly why first-time visitors to food banks feel embarrassed or ashamed. They feel that it wasn’t the system that failed–they did.
So, what is the social good agenda for fighting food waste and insecurity?
There are several social different reasons to solve this problem:
- Poor nutrition impacts health and learning, especially for children, which in turn creates other social costs and problems.
- Food production and distribution consumes a lot of fossil fuels; wasted food drives up our carbon emissions with no resulting benefit (roughly 10 percent of our energy consumption goes to food production and distribution).
- Growing, cleaning, and preparing food also consumes fresh water.
- Decomposing food waste in landfills contributes to greenhouse gas emissions (according to the EPA, 15 percent of U.S. methane emissions come from landfills).
Feeding People More Efficiently
After decades of promotion and policy, people are starting to understand the concept of and benefits of energy efficiency. Water efficiency is becoming more important as more areas experience shortages of fresh water. Maybe it’s time to think about food efficiency.
Embedded in this situation are several possible marketing challenges and opportunities:
- Promotion: We use public awareness campaigns to change behaviors related to buying, using, and disposing of food?
- Product: We can invest public dollars in agricultural research to create food that stays nutritious and compelling longer, so that people don’t throw out spoiled or uninteresting food.
- Price: Is food too cheap? Do we pay for it in the right way? That may sound funny, but if the average American household throws out $1,600 worth of food a year, maybe they don’t value it enough, and price is a reflection of value. One possibility would be to have a hunger tax on luxury foods, partly to raise funds and partly to raise awareness.
- Distribution: Can we package, store, ship, and sell food more efficiently, so that it doesn’t spoil while in inventory? Can we get it more effectively to people living in food deserts?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has launched the Start Simple with MyPlate app to help address nutrition, waste, and food insecurity. But this isn’t just a U.S. phenomenon; wasted food is a global problem. That also means a global marketing opportunity.
Where would you start in marketing to address food waste and insecurity?
(Images courtesy of WikiMedia)