Focus on Food Waste

September 27, 2022

Lincoln Park Zoo is proud of its conservation and science efforts. Our scientists are always working to arm others with more knowledge and more tools about the animals that reside here and around the world, so we can better help them and make it a world where humans and animals can coexist.

Sometimes, this even involves putting the lens on members of our own organization and how motivated we are to change our behaviors in the name of conservation. That’s right: our researchers studied—well, us.

As you may already know, food waste is a major problem around the world; research shows that globally, one-third of edible food parts intended for humans are lost or wasted every year. Not only does this contribute to global inaccessibility to food, food waste is a major source of methane emissions into the environment.

But this seems like such a big problem, contributed to by so many individual households. How could it be possible to create a systematic approach to reducing food waste?

As a zoo focused on care, conservation, and community, we’re committed to figuring out solutions. With that in mind, Lincoln Park Zoo’s Green Team, a group of zoo staff from all areas of the zoo focused on sustainability, developed a food waste reduction campaign for both staff and volunteers, which took place between October 2020 and March 2021.

The methodology and results of the project have now been published in the journal Zoo Biology and were released last month in an article called “’Walking the talk’: Applying community-based social marketing to a pilot waste programme at Lincoln Park Zoo.” Co-authors of the piece are Erin Shoffstall of the Learning department, and Julie Somor of the Conservation & Science department.

Candying lemon peels.

Through a survey, the researchers found that zoo employees, as might be expected, are concerned about waste and the environment—and are motivated both by this concern and by saving money. However, employees expressed a lack of knowledge, skills, and time as barriers to saving food scraps, and also noted that they easily forget about the food scraps. Some also found cooking with food scraps to be unappealing, inconvenient, or unsuited to their style in the kitchen.

Armed with this knowledge, our fellow employees at the zoo created a number of activities designed to engage their colleagues in cooking with their food scraps as a way of modeling behavior for others and leading the way in reducing food waste. This included a webinar series, a commitment pledge, pre- and post-campaign food waste audits, and a digital Community Cookbook, along with other methods.

The authors reported that about 65 percent of participants found the program at least moderately useful and 85 percent tried new actions to reduce food waste. Those who learned something felt they now knew how to keep perishables fresh longer and became much more aware of how food waste is a problem. They also liked learning how to frame thinking about food waste from a lens of environmentalism.

Beets and radish dish.

Participants also adopted new routines related to storage, meal planning, creative cooking, and using as much of a food item, such as a fruit or vegetable, as possible—and felt good about doing so. Overall, researchers considered the experiment a qualified success, noting that the positive results might be a result of multiple strategies designed to lower barriers and highlight benefits. They point out, though, that zoo employees are probably a more receptive audience to some when it comes to taking on new behaviors designed to help the environment. And they make recommendations to future researchers looking to replicate the work.

“We know how intimidating behavior change can seem, especially when there is so much pressure to be successful in our conservation efforts. After all, as practitioners, we’re asking our participants to—in essence—transform in some way and when we apply traditional awareness efforts, this often doesn’t translate to true change,” Shoffstall says. “We wanted this article to be a real-world example of community-based social marketing in action. We acknowledge that our campaign wasn’t executed to perfection, but we also want to brave those lessons learned and share our journey so that other internal agents of change embrace behavior change in their own organizations.”

Shoffstall says the research was inspired by the idea of making climate-friendly choices, and allowing Lincoln Park Zoo employees to “walk the talk,” as the study’s title says. Now, just in time for International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste on September 29, you can join the zoo in its commitment to change by Taking Action with Us, as we continue to be an institution that focuses on connecting people with nature. Even our own!

Empty Playlist