Understanding Food Waste
Senior research project explores connections between stress and food waste on FLC campus
By student contributor Jade Slavin (Environmental Studies, ’22)
In Spring 2022, the Environmental Center’s Weigh the Waste initiative found that the San Juan Dining Hall created 139 pounds of food waste in just one day. To further reduce food waste, we need to understand what motivates students to waste food. My senior research and capstone project attempted to do just that.
As a student here, I have become really interested in how we can build a more sustainable society by thinking about our interactions with food. One of my first major food waste experiences came while working with the Environmental Center as the project lead for the Sustainable Dining Project. I saw how much waste our campus generates every day and began working to find ways to help minimize this waste.
To deepen my understanding of food issues, I participated in an internship program last summer with Sixth World Solutions, a human rights organization on the Navajo Nation. During those two months, I helped start many community gardens and saw the challenges surrounding food security in Indigenous communities. As a member of the Citizen Band Potawatomi Nation, I believe that being able to help build food sovereignty for an Indigenous community was a truly meaningful opportunity to link my passion for the environment with my own identity as an Indigenous woman.
After that internship, I returned to FLC inspired to add a Native American & Indigenous Studies minor to my degree and pursue this research project focused on what might be contributing to why students do or don’t waste food. Previous research attempted to understand what factors motivated people to reduce food waste; the findings revealed that people who think about food waste and are in a community that cares about reducing food waste really do waste less food.
After reading about these past studies, I felt that stress might be an overlooked component that also influences food waste behaviors, especially on college campuses. To explore this idea, I worked with Michael Drake, visiting assistant professor of Environment & Sustainability, to design a study that simultaneously measured students’ food waste and stress levels. I spent two weeks surveying over 100 students at the SJDH during dinner, when I weighed the wasted food on each student’s tray while they took a short survey about their perceived stress levels, happiness that day, and connections to food waste.
After analyzing the survey results, I found that stress is strongly related to how much food a student wastes. Interestingly, moderately stressed students wasted the most food–even more than those who reported feeling high stress or low stress. Students who reported experiencing higher stress levels wasted an average of 83 grams less food than moderately stressed individuals.
I also found that students who reported feeling above-average happiness wasted more food than those who reported feeling average happiness levels. Though my survey cannot explain exactly why different stress levels led to changes in food waste behavior, I can speculate a bit on why this might be. High stress levels release lots of cortisol hormones into the body, which essentially turns on a “fight or flight” mode, where the body stops worrying about taking care of itself, so it can focus on what is stressful in the moment. Perhaps students with high levels of stress simply aren’t eating because their bodies are too preoccupied with whatever is stressing them out. Conversely, low-stressed students may have more mental capacity to devote to thinking about reducing their food waste. Moderately stressed students might be in a sweet spot, where they are too preoccupied to worry about reducing food waste and not in the stressed-out physical state where their bodies stop feeling hungry.
The results of my study confirmed my hypothesis that stress is an overlooked component influencing food waste behavior. Understanding what motivates students to waste food can help inform future waste-reduction initiatives. The next steps are to understand what it is about stress that makes students waste food and to find ways that we as a campus community can come together to reduce student stress and food waste.
This research is important to me because it strengthened my personal connection to food security and waste-reduction efforts. In the future, I hope to use my knowledge of food waste to increase food security among Native American communities.
Jade Slavin graduated in May 2022 with a major in Environmental Studies (now Environmental Conservation & Management) and a minor in Native American & Indigenous Studies. Besides working as Project Lead for the Environmental Center, she also served as a student senator for ASFLC and was chair of the Student Services Committee.