We’re all guilty of wasting food.
Sometimes we dump the leftovers in the trash after a big meal, or we find forgotten food in the fridge that has long since expired.
Restaurants, grocery stores and food distributors are also wasteful – throwing out ugly-looking but perfectly good produce and getting rid of products as soon as they hit the “best before” date.
In fact, according to Value Chain Management International, a sustainability-focused consultancy firm, it’s estimated that $31-billion worth of food is wasted every year in Canada.
Tammara Soma hopes to break the cycle of wasted food and wasted money. The University of Toronto PhD student in the Faculty of Arts & Science and Trudeau Foundation Scholar founded theFood Systems Lab, which aims to work with private, public and community organizations to find solutions to Canada’s waste problem.
“The role of the Food Systems Lab is to bring all these diverse, multidisciplinary stakeholders and collaborate together,” she says.
The lab, funded by the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, will be conducting a series of workshops beginning Nov. 24 to find the root of the waste problem
“The idea is that at the end of the Food Systems Lab, we would come up with interventions – a prototype that can be tested in a microfood system to see how it works,” says Soma.
According to U of T research, almost 12 per cent of Ontarians are food insecure – meaning they have trouble accessing the food they need to have a healthy, balanced diet.
“We can’t keep going on this path where we waste food and waste resources,” says Soma.
Planning graduate student Kelsey Carriere is doing research with the Food Systems Lab. She has been conducting interviews with different organizations along the food supply chain from restaurants to community groups.
“One of my most enlightening interviews so far has been with an elder from a traditional knowledge centre who was giving an Indigenous perspective on how food is valued, on gratitude and how nothing should go to waste,” she says.
Carriere says there is some reluctance on the part of food producers and suppliers to adopt a waste-reduction strategy.
“Nobody’s against it in principle. It’s really just a question of logistics. At a large-scale corporate-level, when you’ve got a system that works, and you’re being asked to redesign that, it’s a daunting task,” she says.
Changes also need to be made by consumers and retailers, says Virginia Maclaren, associate professor and chair of the department of geography and planning and an expert in waste management.
“Households are constrained in many ways in terms of how they reduce food and produce food waste by time constrains, by family constrains, by marketing constraints – they’re sold certain types of foods that they maybe don’t need,” says Maclaren, who is the special advisor to the Food Systems Lab.
Those who are willing adopt the “waste not” philosophy of a new generation of city planners.
“With growing urbanization and a growing population, we need to feed all the people. I think that’s part of the reason why I call myself a food systems planner,” says Soma.
This new type of planning is growing in popularity, says Maclaren.
“Demand for it is starting to explode because municipalities are developing food plans, food policy councils or trying to integrate food considerations into their official plan,” she says.
Many kids have faced mothers who threatened punishment for not eating everything on their plates and wasting food. But, judging from the estimated $27 billion worth of food Canadians throw away each year, that tactic hasn’t worked.
Things may change with the upcoming food waste symposium taking place at the University of Toronto November 24, organized by Trudeau Foundation Scholar and PhD candidate Tammara Soma and Lauren Baker, a U of T course instructor and Toronto Food Policy Council member.
More than 200 participants are expected to attend the mini-workshops on food waste hosted by Food not Bombs, Second Harvest and the City of Toronto Waste Management department. The event also includes a screening of the award-winning food waste documentary Just Eat It and a panel discussion featuring several experts working on food waste issues.
Writer Dominic Ali spoke with Soma to learn more about why Canadians squander so much food, and how to reduce the waste.
Why is food waste such a significant issue right now?
When it comes to waste, there is the mantra of “out of sight, out of mind.” However, many landfill sites are near capacity and we cannot continue our throwaway mentality.
From an economic standpoint, Canadian households are burning $1,500 annually when they waste food. According to one study, a household might as well leave one bag of groceries outside of the door when they come back from grocery shopping since they will waste that amount of food in one week anyway.
Globally, reports from the FAO have estimated that we throw away 30 per cent to 50 per cent of the food that is produced for human consumption. The fact that significant hunger exists when large amounts of food are being thrown away is very disturbing.
How is food waste related to food security?
Food waste is definitely tied to the issue of food security as global famines have occurred during periods of food surplus. In Canada, there has been an increase in food bank recipients this year (841,000 Canadians use food banks and are food insecure) while at the same time, perfectly good food is being sent to landfills.
When we talk about food waste, we are talking about systemic issues in our food systems that are tied to unequal power relations.
What’s the biggest challenge facing cities like Toronto when it comes to food waste?
Most of our foods in Toronto are imported and agriculture uses approximately 70 per cent of the world’s water. Wasting food means wasting the labour and natural resources used to grow that food domestically and internationally. In addition, urban waste management is expensive and this will be reflected in our future tax contributions.
As scholar Wayne Roberts argues, “it is odd that so much money can be wasted on garbage and so much environmental damage done by garbage, without anyone ranking it high as a hot public policy issue.”
What can one person do to prevent food waste?
Reducing household food waste requires that people change their patterns of consumption while juggling everyday life and I am aware that this can be difficult. However, there are numerous resources out there to help individuals reuse leftovers, or understand food labelling and better food storage (www.lovefoodhatewaste.com).
The first step I took with my family of five was to be less picky and to cook smaller portions. For example, I noticed that I always cook too much oatmeal for breakfast, so the next time around I actually used a measuring cup. I also try my best to spruce up leftovers with spices/condiments instead of buying takeout. Bringing food containers also comes in handy when I go to restaurants. Witnessing waste pickers having to eat leftover food from the dumpsite was a wake-up call for me to reflect upon the ethical issues of wasting food.