Aren't you afraid of getting sick? KaThy fadigan, Penn State University

Using Social Networking to Explore Food Waste and Sustainability

  • Food loss is defined as “the amount of edible food, postharvest, that is available for human consumption but is not consumed for any reason,”
  • Food waste is considered “a component of food loss and occurs when an edible item goes unconsumed, such as discarded by retailers due to blemishes or plate waste discarded by consumers,” (Buzby, Wells, & Hyman, 2014, p.1).
  • In 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimated that 31 percent of all of the food produced in the US never made it into the mouths of consumers (Buzby, Wells, & Hyman, 2014).
  • The manufacturers’ choice of wording on the labels, such as “best before”, “sell by”, “use by,” and “eat by,” do not give a clear indication of when a food item truly becomes inedible.

Spring 2016 Biology undergraduate course, "Plants, Places, & People."

In the fall I teach "Sustainability Leadership" to freshman education majors.

"Dive!: Living Off America’s Waste" (Seifert, 2009)

On Easter Sunday, 2016 I visited my first dumpster at a Save-a-Lot grocery store.

I checked a different location later that week. Eggs, dairy, and Easter candy.

  • Out of curiosity I continued to check more dumpsters, and continued to find more and more edible food.
  • I love smoothies for breakfast and I started to fill my freezer with fresh berries.
  • I also started posting pictures and descriptions of my finds to Facebook.
  • I created a personal challenge, to live off of dumpster food for the entire month of July.
  • And everyday I would post a list of items and pics.
  • I was amazed by how people reacted to my posts. Some people were excited and wanted to come along.

Other people had questions, which in turn lead to some interesting discourse.

People recognized the social justice issues.

  • More and more people were adding comments each day and asking to accompany me on dives.
  • People brought up sustainability issues.
  • Once again I was encouraged to write about what I was doing.

After some searching, I found my research questions...

Overarching Question

What is the potential for the utilization of social networking sites in improving public understanding of science?

1. What is the level and nature of engagement of adult learners with the researcher’s action research project on dumpster diving and food waste via Facebook?

2. What are adult learners’ attitudes and knowledge related to food waste as expressed through Facebook posts?

3. In what ways do adult learners change their personal actions regarding food waste as a result of participation as self-reported through Facebook posts?


  • Participatory Action Research (PAR)


  • 104 out of a total of 593 Facebook “Friends” (57 females & 47 males; 27 percent racial minorities; 19 former students)

Theoretical Framework

Contextual Model of Learning (Falk & Dierking, 2000)

Legitimate Peripheral Participation - (Lave & Wenger, 1991)

Theory of Planned Behavior (Ajzen, 1991)

Question 1: Engagement via Facebook

From July 4-31, 2016 the researcher created 29 posts with a total of 124 photos.

Fifteen participants engaged with the photos; six supplied written comments.

Participants “liked” the written posts 275 separate times and posted 114 comments.

In addition to the Wall posts, the researcher received private messages and emails from three participants discussing the subject.

Question 2: Attitudes and knowledge related to food waste

generally positive in nature

surprise toward both the quality and quantity of items that were being rescued

supportive and encouraging: “Score!!!” and “Those berries look amazing!”.

Other positive comment categories that emerged include: 1) encouraging, 2) spectator, 3) sharing with others, or 4) information seeking.

Four individuals also took part in a lengthy dialogue about the legal issues of dumpster diving.

Participants sometimes expressed sadness and disappointment about how much food is being wasted that could otherwise be shared with people in need, as exemplified by this participant’s comment:

“Amazing and sad... just thinking of your haul for this month multiplied by the thousands of stores across America that do this is mind boggling.”

Skepticism and fear sometimes appeared in participant posts. Participants expressed concern over the quality and safety of the food the researcher was taking. One of the most common comments was “Aren’t you afraid of getting sick?”. When participants raised questions as to whether or not the food was edible, the researcher took advantage of the “teachable moment” and attempted to probe further and pose questions that would require the participant to explain their thinking. here the researcher used these opportunities to challenge misconceptions and provide scientific information about food safety, microbiology, and the biology of decomposition.

Question 3: Change in behavior

Many of the comments left by participants were requests to “take me with you.” The investigator visited dumpsters with five participants and on one occasion lead a city “dumpster tour” for a co-worker and her seven undergraduate interns.

Two participants indicated that they began to visit dumpsters on their own. Individuals voluntarily provided multiple written and visual updates of their dumpster visits.

  • July 27, 4:15 PM. "Dumpster dive, Day One. So, my friend Beth is always telling me about ALDI. "Ken, go to ALDI, go to ALDI, GOTHEFUCKTOALDI!! I had to go to the Home Depot today, which is near an ALDI, So I thought, wtf, I'll go to ALDI. I needed milk anyway. It's not far so I rode my bike. I was very impressed by their prices, and I texted Beth to let her know this. "Getting my cherry popped at ALDI," ect, ect. So I go to unlock my bike and a little voice, your voice, says WHY DON'T YOU CHECK THE DUMPSTER, DICKHEAD? (Dickhead.... That's how it knew it was you you). I could only carry so much with a backpack, but here it is. Two bacon wrapped fillets, still cold, Lancaster chicken breasts, expiration date: Aug 1, still cold, a pack of applause, two missing, and a container of strawberries, all perfect and still cold. Part of me wants to shout, "What the fuck is wrong with the world?!", and another part says, "Those be mah fillets".

The participants have shared food waste information with others in their own networks, as one individual stated, “I talk about your posts at work every day. What an amazing social experiment. I gotta admit, I wanna try. Lol”. Other behavioral changes expressed relate to personal food choices. For example, a former science education graduate student posted, “Speaking of... I'm reconsidering my vegetarianism, and would like to make the decision based on resource use, carbon footprint, etc… Do you have any good sources with little bias?


  • highly contextual nature restricts the generalizability of the results to other settings.researcher’s bias resulting from the PAR methodology.
  • The researcher has personal relationships with each one of the participants and most if not all of the participants know of the researcher’s science education background, which may present a power dynamic.

Scholarly significance

Falk and Needham (2013) indicated that rather than a single source, a vast array of resources supports public understanding of science. The results of this project lend support for one of those many sources, the SNS.

The results do support Lindeman’s notion that, “As physically off-putting as it may be to come in close contact with decomposing matter, the experience generates a fuller understanding of the natural progression of foods in the natural world,” (2012, p. 79).

Future Directions...

Kathy Fadigan

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