Lunches vs. Landfills: Preventing Food Waste and Improving Food Security with Food Safety Education

College of Health and Human Sciences

Food Science and Human Nutrition



Primary Topic:

Food and Agriculture

Other Topics:

Health and Well-Being

Lead Mentor:  

Charlene Van Buiten

Assistant Professor

Internship Overview:

Food waste poses a significant threat to global sustainability. Each year, Americans throw away an estimated 206 billion pounds of foods, which is equivalent to approximately 30-40% of the entire American food supply. Most of this disposed food ends up in landfills, where it goes on to produce methane over the course of decomposition. Approximately 8% of total global greenhouse gases are estimated to be a product of food waste.

The overarching objective of this internship is to combat food waste and food insecurity in the Fort Collins community by increasing consumer education in food safety.

There are two major routes by which food may end up in a landfill- as commercial waste or as consumer waste. Commercial waste comprises items that did not get sold from grocery stores or restaurants before their “sell by” dates, while consumer waste comprises any items that individuals throw away directly from their homes. According to a 2020 survey, 81.6% of people report using food date labels, but only 57.4% could correctly define “best by” and “use by”. This study also showed that respondents who understand “best by” and “use by” are significantly less likely to throw food away, suggesting that consumer education is a viable target for reducing food waste in American homes.

Despite the fact that Americans are throwing away more food than ever, they are also hungrier than ever; an estimated 54 million Americans are food insecure, meaning that they lack consistent access for enough food to live an active, healthy life. Grocery prices increased an average of 12% across the US in 2022, putting financial strain on families. Recent studies have shown that inflation has caused 46% of Americans to consume food after the “best by”, “use by” or “sell by” date. However, as previously mentioned, a large share of Americans cannot correctly define these dates. This overall lack of consumer understanding of food labeling suggests a need for consumer education in order to support the safety of consumers who are interested in consuming foods past their respective “use by” dates.

With greater access to education about food safety and labeling, members of the Fort Collins community will be more likely to prevent food waste by consuming foods past their “use by” dates take advantage of opportunities such as those provided by food rescues, which prevent commercial food waste by making it available to consumers. One such food rescue is Vindeket Foods in Fort Collins, CO. Vindeket Foods is a 501(c) (3) nonprofit organization in which collects food past its “sell by” date from grocery stores and restaurants, and makes that food available to consumers at no cost. In 2022, Vindeket redistributed 1,079,922 lbs of food, moving it onto peoples’ plates instead of into a landfill. Widespread community engagement with organizations such as Vindeket Foods has the potential to significantly reduce food waste and remediate food insecurity in the Front Range. Vindeket Foods has agreed to partner with CSU’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition for this internship and provide support for the CSU Extension intern in terms of mentorship and a platform for dissemination of both the consumer survey and educational materials.

Over the course of this program, the summer intern will help with survey development and learn about conducting qualitative research. They will also be exposed to the Institutional Review Board (IRB) that is required to approve all research involving human subjects. The summer intern will be responsible for the distribution of the survey and collection of data. After data is collected, they will learn to analyze the results of the study and use those fundings to generation educational materials surrounding food labeling, strategies for determining whether a food is still safe to eat and strategies for sustainably disposing of food products. This program will allow the summer intern to gain experience participating in an outreach project that encompasses food science, public health and sustainability. The professional development experience will be targeted towards students who aim to pursue a career in food science education and outreach.

Goals, Scope and Objectives:

The overarching objective of this internship is to develop strategies to minimize food waste through consumer education. We will evaluate the relationship between consumer knowledge of food safety and their habits with regard to food waste.

Under the guidance of the mentoring team, the Extension summer intern will complete the following aims:
o Evaluate community knowledge of food safety, labeling and food waste
– Develop survey for consumers to gather information about perceptions and habits surrounding food safety, “best by” dates and food waste
– Meet with extension professionals to gather input on survey and identify additional questions relevant to stakeholder interests
– Distribute survey and collect consumer data
o Develop educational outreach materials to remediate knowledge gaps observed from collected survey data
– Design and distribute signage/flyers for consumers
– Design downloadable material for Extension websites
– Assist with development and delivery of a short web series about food labels and how to assess a variety of food products for safe consumption

With which stakeholder group(s) will the intern work?

The intern will work with consumers, non-profit employees and volunteers in Fort Collins, CO.

What student learning outcomes do you anticipate and what are the opportunities for professional development?

This project will provide the student with the opportunity to develop qualitative research skills through the development, dissemination and analysis of the survey portion of this project. The student will also learn how to develop effective outreach materials and delivery the information to Extension professionals.
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