Laura earned her B.S. degree from UC Berkeley in Conservation and Resource Studies with a concentration in Environmental Education. While an undergraduate, she initiated and led several campus programs relating to green building and recycling, including the Building Sustainability at Cal Program. They aimed to educate and engage students while reducing the campus’ environmental impact. Prior to ERG, Laura worked at the U.S. EPA on renewable energy and sustainable material management with a focus on wasted food. At ERG, she plans to explore the role of the individual in environmental behavior change through the lens of sustainable materials management.
What have you been working on that most excites you?
The overall goal of my research is to reduce the amount of food that is wasted in the United States. It is estimated that around 40% of the edible food grown in the United States never gets eaten! This means that more food than ever is ending up in landfills. Additionally, about 20% of the freshwater in the U.S. is used to grow wasted food, and all of the resources used to grow that food, including energy and pesticides, are wasted. This also creates economic waste to the tune of $165 billion a year in the U.S., all while 14% of Americans are food insecure (for more information, see this great report by the NRDC).
Focusing on influencing behavior to prevent food waste is still a new endeavor. Europe, specifically the UK, has been working on this for about a decade, but the United States is just beginning to focus on these issues. I am working in two of the communities piloting the U.S. EPA’s Food: Too Good to Waste program which should be launched nationally soon. It is a really great time to be working on this issue because programs are being designed as we speak and I get the chance to influence them.
Previously, while at the EPA, I worked primarily on proper disposal of food waste via composting and anaerobic digestion. Now, I focus on preventing the food from being wasted in the first place because that has the potential to have a much larger impact. Specifically for my research, I have been interviewing households to understand the social and cultural processes that transform food to waste at the household level. What I am finding is fascinating!
For instance, refrigerators aren’t simply devices to preserve food but social actors that impact how people consider and value food. An example of this is when a person puts their leftovers in the refrigerator even if they do not have the intention–either consciously or unconsciously–to eat them. By keeping them in the refrigerator until they are covered in furry white mold, some people feel less guilt about wasting those leftovers than if they had immediately thrown them away. Another finding is that the physical and cognitive disconnect that many people have with how their food is grown affects how we value food as well as how we determine whether it is edible. I call it the “shiny red apple syndrome.” We are disconnected with how our food is grown which creates almost unrealistic expectations about how we expect our food to look and age. This means that grocery stores generally don’t sell us anything but perfect-looking (or almost perfect) produce (and so it generally gets wasted) and that we throw away food prematurely. Ultimately, I hope my work will impact policy and programs implemented by governments to reduce the amount of food that is wasted.
What difference has researching at ERG made for you?
I was primarily trained in the natural sciences before coming to ERG. ERG has allowed (and encouraged) me to explore other disciplines, like sociology and behavioral science, which greatly influence my work. I now look at wasted food from a completely different mindset than I did before. I no longer view wasting food as a socially deviant behavior but as a socially inevitable one. People waste food as a result of social and structural processes that impact everyday life, thus we must understand and influence those process to create change.
Within ERG, I have collaborated with Isha Ray and Duncan Callaway to help guide my work. Isha has been instrumental in helping me apply social science research methods and Duncan has helped me refine my methodology. Additionally, I have been working with professors and researchers outside of ERG to guide my research. This includes Alastair Iles in Environmental Science Policy and Management at Cal and Roni Neff at Johns Hopkins. I have also been working with the City of Seattle, Alameda County Waste Management Authority, and EPA. The great thing about ERG is that it allows me to work with a wide range of people with different expertise and perspectives. As a result, I believe that my research will be more well-rounded and impactful.
Why did you choose ERG?
I chose ERG, because the work that I do doesn’t fit neatly into a specific discipline. I believed that researching food waste prevention would best be done from an interdisciplinary perspective. By being in ERG, I get the “keys to the castle” in a lot of respects. I can take classes in any department and work with a wide range of researchers. Plus, the people are ERG are truly amazing. I have never met a more supportive group of people.
Laura “driving” a tractor as a child
How has your background been a part of your research and time at ERG?
I have had a love for food since as long as I can remember. I grew up for the first part of my childhood on a ranch in the Central Valley of California. I have fond memories of eating plums off the ground (because the ones that just fell off the tree were the sweetest and tastiest) and of the first time I ever saw a chicken slaughtered. I feel very fortunate to be one of the increasingly smaller number of people that have experienced the growing and preparing of food first hand. This has not only inspired my desire to decrease the amount of food wasted, but also made me appreciate the human labor and natural capital that goes into making the food I now buy in a grocery store. It also made me realize that not all food is perfect and beautiful, but that doesn’t make it any less valuable! We need to embrace those imperfect looking fruits and veggies!
What advice do you have for prospective students?
Graduate school and ERG is a lot of work, but it is worth it if you are doing something that you truly enjoy. Also, start grad school with an open mind. Every day I am more and more aware of how much I don’t know.