A new study suggests the key to reducing household food waste could be more frequent visits where shoppers buy less.

When I was in college, I met a French grad student who loved to cook. I would go to his house for dinner, and the first step surprised me: We’d walk to the grocery store and buy exactly what we needed for the night. He said it was the French way. True or not, it certainly wasn’t the suburban Philadelphia way. When I was growing up, my mom would plan out a string of meals and then drive to the store for a weekly shop. Stocking up was convenient, but if us kids conned mom into ordering pizza, that was a meal missed. I never thought about what happened to that part of our big shop: Maybe those ingredients got repurposed, but maybe they spoiled.

In an era where food waste is a growing global concern (yesterday, I wrote about how the problem might be twice as bad as we realized), a new study suggests that making smaller trips to the grocery store as my French friend did could lead to less waste—and that increasing the number of grocery stores may be the best way to encourage people to head to the store more frequently.

An aerial view of various vegetables, including mushrooms, carrots and asparagus at a local supermarket.
Credit: TommL/Getty Images

The paper—entitled “Grocery Store Density and Food Waste” and written by Elena Belavina, an associate professor in the SC Johnson College of Business at Cornell University—specifically cited Manhattan as an area where the ratio of residents to grocers works well: People have a shorter distance to get to the store, so they tend to visit more often and buy less stuff; fewer groceries means fewer things that can go bad which in turn implies less waste.

She then compared the New York borough to Chicago. “Just three to four more stores in the Chicago area can lead to 6 to 9 percent reduction in waste. This is accompanied by a 1 to 4 percent decrease in grocery expenses for households,” the author explained in announcing her findings. “What's more, increasing the number of grocery stores in a given area also works to combat emissions, while reducing consumer food expenditures, achieving two goals that are often considered competing.”

Importantly, Belavina stresses that simply increasing the number of grocery stores isn’t always the answer because it’s possible to have too many stores as well. “The key is finding the right number of stores for each area,” she adds. “An increase in the number of stores decreases consumer waste due to improved access to groceries, but too many store options increase retail waste due to relocating inventory, price competition and diminished demand by customers.”

Still, as the study states, any city has “an optimal store density,” and Belavina’s data suggest that “actual store density in most American cities is well below this threshold/optimal level [so] modest increases in store density [could] substantially reduce waste.” As a result, she writes that “activists and policy makers’ focus on retail waste may be misguided.” Instead, “Store operators, urban planners, and decision makers should aim to increase store densities to make grocery shopping more affordable and sustainable.”

Meanwhile, Belavina explained that it’s not just densely packed areas like New York and Chicago that could benefit from her work. “In the study, I also looked at more sprawling cities like Los Angeles, Denver, and even college towns like Ithaca,” she told me via email. “For all kinds of areas I studied, an increase in store density is beneficial. However, the impact is even more pronounced in more suburban environments like Los Angeles and Denver.”