OPINIONFresh Food

The Latest Tool to Reduce Food Waste: Grocery Stores

Shopping habits observed in cities such as Chicago, Paris and London

The Lempert Report

Elena Belavina, associate professor at the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell's S.C. Johnson College of Business, led a study that found an unexpected solution to food waste: simply build more places where people can buy groceries. 

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 toward more frequent trips to buy smaller quantities of food—a shopping habit long observed in European cities such as Paris, Milan and London. 

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, ditching the excess fresh produce that is past its prime.

And interestingly enough, they also say 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.

The Cornell researchers took a look at Chicago, and found that adding between only three and four more stores per 10 square kilometers 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.

There are signs that around the world, we are “reviving those small corner stores, mom and pop stores, smaller-format stores,” says Belavina. Reinforcing what we are seeing as smaller footprint stores—say 10,000 square foot that are neighborhood-focused—we can add reducing food waste as one more reason to build these stores.

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