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Student Food Waste

Duration 12 weeks

Role facilitate interviews, moderate usability tests, conduct field observations, perform qualitative analysis, contribute to ideation, prototype solutions, create and present deliverables

Team Katy, Rose, Sean, Cindy


How might we promote less wasteful food consuming habits, and increase awareness of the environmental impact of individual food waste within the UC Berkeley population?

Project Overview

For this project, my peers and I formed a team around the central goal of using the design thinking process to address current norms and change behavior around wasting food within the UC Berkeley student population. The University of California aims to be zero-waste in 2020 and moving forward, however, this proposal is limited to on-campus activities. While the university has implemented some initiatives such as composting bins on campus and in the dining halls, the majority of students live in off-campus housing. We realized that this meant that the majority of cooking and eating occurs off campus, where campus zero-waste initiatives are not present. 

This was our very first team meeting, Cafe Think in UC Berkeley Haas School of Business would become our go-to meeting space for duration of this project!


We employed a range of research methods which allowed us to understand the problem from multiple perspectives. 



We used literature search to gather existing research on the topic of food waste and investigate existing solutions. 

We began by conducting a literature search, our goal was to understand the problem and what solutions already existed. As a group we created a research plan, where we brainstormed different sources of information that could help us understand the problem better, then delegated research areas to each member of the team. For example, I looked into historical precedent, using research articles and news sources to paint a picture of solutions to food waste throughout time. 


We noticed that throughout history, Americans often received conflicting messages about food waste. 



Interviews gave us more specific and in-depth data about food waste at UC Berkeley. We could ask about the "why" behind what we were seeing. 

Since we had the bandwidth to conduct a large number of interviews, we decided to broaden our scope, not only talking to our users, students living in off-campus housing, but experts as well. Experts such as Cal Dining employees and student sustainability advocate groups allowed us to gain a broader picture of food waste efforts on and off campus. We utilized a semi-structured interview tactic, using an outline to guide the interview, while also diverging according to the interviewee's responses. 

To prepare for our interviews, we first identified our objectives, based on which we brainstormed questions, and then structured into an interview guide. This method of preparation allowed us the flexibility during an interview to gain data on all topics, while also balancing with individual experiences. 

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"Fridge observation" might be a better name for our final research tactic. Using field observations, we compared data from student interviews with their real-time behavior.

We visited student apartments, where students showed us their cupboards, fridges, and how they cooked their meals - whether that be chopping up a fresh salad or tearing open a microwavable pasta. This method of observation was valuable firstly because it allowed us to understand the context in which students prepare their meals, and secondly, because we could identify when behaviors were incongruous with what we learned in the interviews. For our observations, we used the AEIOU framework, where we took note of actions, environments, interactions, objects, and users. 

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A few photos captured by my team and I during our observations.

Using frameworks to analyze our data, we uncovered patterns to identify the root cause of the issue.

Since we gathered a large amount of data, we turned to a few different methods to analyze and understand what we had learned. Using affinity diagrams, emotional journey maps, and 2X2 matrices we took both a wide overview and a detailed look at our data.

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A example of our affinity diagram from which we developed our generative insights. As a group, we reviewed all our research, then took to sticky notes to write down individual pieces of information before re-organizing and grouping the data. We noticed patterns and clusters beginning to form which led to our key insights. 

We uncovered a few key insights from our research and data analysis that eventually informed the development of our solution.

Stories we heard:

"Me buying a bunch of produce is idealistic because I literally won’t cook it, and my realistic lifestyle is microwaving something at 10pm… I realize now I should buy based on what suits my own life and not what I’m aiming for"

- W, undergraduate student

"It doesn't cost much less so it's not really worthwhile to buy a smaller package "

- C, undergraduate student

"To be honest, I always let things go bad, and then it's like rotten so then I gotta throw it out"

- F, undergraduate student

“The irony is that the Berkeley campus has a food insecurity issue with people who don’t have access to good food, but also an issue where there is an excess and people are wasting food”

- L, Housing and Dining Sustainability Advocate and undergraduate student

"I threw out a lot of tangerines like two days ago. I threw them out because I had them for like two weeks... I had higher expectations for myself and my own ability to consume…  "

- M, undergraduate student

 "I think that you asking me makes me realize how mindless it [tossing out food] is…it's like a reflex… I don’t even think twice about it… I just do it"

- W, undergraduate student

"I share two fridges with 17 people, my fingers get frozen from looking though the fridge"

- C, undergraduate exchange student

Patterns we saw:


Students value saving money but do not realize the cost of throwing out food.

Throwing away a bag of spinach doesn’t feel like tossing $1.50 in the trash because the monetary meaning of food disappears after making the purchase.


Students shop based on ideal health goals and consume based on default eating habits

Students buy groceries based on abstract and ideal expectations for future needs, which contrasts with how effortful and time-consuming if feels when it actually comes time to cook.


Having extra food at home makes students feel safe.

During a week-long semi-power outage due, students stocked up on groceries, especially canned and dried goods, even though most students admitted to having plenty of food at home.


Salient social evaluation makes people more cognizant about food waste

Students felt more guilty about wasting food in the dining halls compared to within their own apartments.

Bringing together the user stories and our insights, we created a HMW question to drive our solution. 

How might we transform one student's extra food into another student's dinner?

In this HMW question, we challenged ourselves to (1) increase the salience of the monetary cost of food waste (2) help students feel safe without over purchasing food (3) recognize when a purchasing error has been made and mitigate costs (4) build a community to inspire food waste reduction. 


We conducted a ideation session, generating as many possible ideas within an established timeframe that answered the HMW question above. 


Similar to our insights stage, we used affinity diagrams to discuss and develop the solutions we came up with. We eventually settled on and prototyped a food sharing system where students could exchange and purchase each other's unopened extra food. This solution addressed all four of our insights by assigning value to wasted food, instilling a sense of security with extra food nearby, allowing for students to easily address purchasing errors, and building a common practice of food waste reduction within the community.

Solution: Localized community fridges where students can ex unopened extra food at a discount. 


We used low fidelity prototypes to test out our idea and receive feedback from our target users. 

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Using play-doh, sticky notes, and print paper, we created low fidelity prototypes to showcase and test out our idea with student users. These cheap, quick, and rough prototypes allowed us to convey the value and test the most important aspects of our solutions without getting bogged down on details. Based on these usability tests, we adjusted our solution and prototype to address the feedback we received. 


Deliverables Presentation Deck, Poster Board


Putting everything together, we presented our research along with the proposed solution. Overall, the feedback we received from our audience was positive.  

Overall, we received positive feedback from both our users who tested the solution and our audience members for whom we presented our project to. We hope to continue to develop our solution to be even more affordable and sustainable. Moving forward, we are interested in exploring current online tools and social media sites in to lower the barrier of entry for users and facilitate decentralized food exchanging.


Here is our final board that we showcased alongside our presentation!

We sought to address a complicated issue in a short amount of time and learned to balance exploration with moving forward with an idea. 

This project was a great learning experience. The goal of this project was more focused on generative research to deeply understand a problem space, so the oscillation between convergent and divergent thinking to transform ideas into solutions proved a challenge. During this process, my team and I had to strike a balance between gathering more research or generating more ideas with staying on track to produce results. It was easy to get excited by insights and ideas and hard to settle on just one solution. As a result, our team learned to employ strict timelines and designated discussion facilitators to ensure that we were able to produce concrete results by the end of each meeting session. 


A big thank you to Professor Kellogg and Professor Somma at UC Berkeley School Haas School of Business for a great class, Elinor for her guidance and mentorship, and my teammates!

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