Ph.D. project: Sustainability assessment of food donation as a food waste management option

Surplus food redistribution, or food donation, has been advocated as a simultaneous solution to coexisting food wastage and food insecurity. Globally, an estimated one-third of the total food production goes lost or wasted, while 2 billion people still lack regular access to nutritious foods and 690 million people are hungry. Even in a high-income country like Sweden, food insecurity is a concern for the 6% of the population with low income, while a large amount of food is wasted, not just by disposing of it, but also through food overconsumption. According to the food waste hierarchy, food waste should be prevented at its source in the first place, and if not possible, the next-best priority is redistribution to human consumption. In reality, however, most food waste is treated by far lower-priority options, such as anaerobic digestion, composting or incineration, and outside Sweden, by landfills. While food donation is widely advocated, it cannot solve the root causes of food insecurity or food waste. However, it could make sense as a short-term solution relieving both issues.

To date, holistic assessments of food donation are scarce, although necessary for decision-makers prioritizing food waste management options. In this Ph.D. project, funded by Formas, the sustainability of food donation will be assessed, from all three aspects of sustainability: environmental, economic, and social. The assessment is conducted as a case study in cooperation with Uppsala City Mission and in particular their two sub-units, the soup kitchen and food bag center donating surplus food to people in need.

To investigate the environmental perspective, a comparison of greenhouse gas emissions from food donation and biogas production was conducted, including avoided emissions associated with their substituted products. For example, in the case of biogas production, emissions from using natural gas and mineral fertilizer were assumed to be avoided and could therefore be credited to the net results. In previous studies concerning food donation, substituted foods have been based on assumptions. In this project, the food substitution was investigated by conducting an interview, so-called 24-hour dietary recall, among the people receiving donated food. In addition, rebound effects were included and investigated by conducting a survey among food donation receivers. Rebound effects were found to arise due to re-spending of accrued monetary savings when receiving donated food, offsetting a substantial part of the carbon emission savings from food donation.

In addition, the economic and social assessment is conducted. In previous studies, the social indicators of food donation are mainly based on the amount of food or meals donated, or job opportunities created. However, these assessments have said very little about the benefits of receiving donated food. Therefore, special attention is paid to the perspective of those receiving donated food, for example by investigating their food security status before and after receiving donated food. Lastly, some important performance indicators are also included, such as effectiveness and efficiency. Effectiveness measures the food waste reduction potential of food donation (how much of the redistributed surplus food is actually eaten), while efficiency is a measure comparing the costs against the benefits, contributing to increased transparency on the performance of food donation as a food waste management option.

Publication status:

Sundin N., Persson Osowski C., Strid I., Eriksson M., 2021. Surplus food donation: effectiveness, carbon footprint, and rebound effect. Resour. Conserv. Recycl. (Under review).

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