We waste less food during lockdown, according to new research.

Food waste is a significant environmental problem in New Zealand. Photo: iStock

A study led by researchers from the University of Auckland sought to better understand the impact of last year’s lockdown on household food waste as part of the Covid Kai Survey, an online questionnaire assessing Kiwis’ cooking and food planning behaviours both before and during lockdown.

The anonymous online Covid Kai Survey was open to participants from 24 April to 13 May 2020 (20 days) while New Zealand was under Covid-19 level three and four restrictions. Recruitment was through social media and networks.

Participants were asked about how often they threw away food as well as questions about cooking skills and habits and whether they struggled to buy food.

Of the 3,028 people who responded to the questionnaire, about two thirds (62.7 percent) of the sample claimed to ‘rarely or never’ waste food in normal times and that rose to nearly 80 percent during lockdown.

And the proportion of respondents that claimed they never threw food away approximately doubled during lockdown.

Overall households with children had more frequent food wastage than those without children, before and during lockdown, but were more likely to decrease food waste during lockdown.

Food waste is a crisis of our time but in New Zealand we don’t quantify how much we waste food in our environmental reporting.

Dr Emma Sharp School of the Environment, Faculty of Science

Overall households with children had more frequent food wastage than those without children, before and during lockdown, but were more likely to decrease food waste during lockdown.

Respondents who were not confident in their cooking skills reported a higher likelihood of wasting food both before and during lockdown, and were nearly three times more likely during Covid lockdown to waste food compared to those who did not see their cooking skills as a barrier to cooking.

Pre-Covid, those who frequently planned meals ahead of time were half as likely to waste food compared with those who did not, and this relationship remained under Covid-19 lockdown conditions.

The study also found that those who struggled to pay for food were the most likely to report that they wasted food during lockdown.

And predictably those who were confident about their cooking skills, were under less time pressure and who planned meals ahead of time wasted the least amount of food.

Overall those aged over 65 were less likely to waste food than younger households.

“Food waste is a crisis of our time but in New Zealand we don’t quantify how much we waste food in our environmental reporting,” says lead author Dr Emma Sharp from the University of Auckland’s School of Environment.

“We think it’s urgent that a national waste reduction target is put in place, associated with standardised measures to more accurately record how much food is wasted by households each year, and that we consider ways this waste could be reduced through household waste minimisation education, cooking skills programmes, or similar.”

The researchers also say the finding that people who struggle to buy food were also the most likely to waste food during lockdown could have a number of different reasons.

“We might consider this apparent anomaly as a normal response to the very busy, stressful, and sometimes chaotic nature of households that experienced food insecurity,” says Dr Sarah Gerritsen from the Faculty of Medical Health and Health Sciences at the University of Auckland and a senior research fellow in the School of Population Health.

“There is good evidence that the pandemic has exacerbated economic inequities, and our already high levels of food insecurity in Aotearoa have increased over the past year. We think this is something that merits more research.”

A New Zealand study in 2018 found the average household was estimated to waste around 164 kg of food per year of which 86 kg is ‘avoidable’.

Globally 1.3 billion tonnes of food is estimated to be wasted each year, most from households. A New Zealand study in 2018 found the average household was estimated to waste around 164 kg of food per year of which 86 kg is ‘avoidable’.

Reasons given for household food wastage in that 2018 survey were: because leftovers were uneaten (23 per cent), food went ‘off’ (21 percent), too much food was cooked (15 percent), and too much food was purchased (15 percent).

The researchers say the study’s findings provide a mandate for a return to well-resourced food planning, preparation and cooking education (what has been known as ‘Home Economics’) at primary and secondary school level.

The universities of Massey, Otago and Antwerp were also involved in the study.

Read the full study

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