CANADA’S FOOD WASTELAND

Druv Sareen

Canada has a dubious relationship with food.

That is not to say Canadians do not care about food – many of us are ready to throw fists over shredded mozzarella on our poutines – but based on the amount of food waste we produce each year, we clearly do not value our food.

The National Zero Waste Council said Canadians produce approximately 35.5 million tonnes of food waste every year. That translates into throwing away $49 billion worth of food each year. If it is hard to imagine how much food is being thrown out, $49 billion would get:

  • 2 billion heads of cauliflower ($6.75 with tax)
  • 5 billion celery bunches ($3.92 with tax) OR
  • 2 billion honey-crisp apples ($1.16 with tax)

Before 2019, putting an exact number to the amount of food being waste in Canada was difficult, but no organization was more prepared for the task than Second Harvest, Canada’s largest food rescue organization.

A new report from Second Harvest, entitled The Avoidable Crisis of Food Waste not only calculated the amount of food wasted in Canada, but also provides the framework needed for other countries to evaluate their own food waste.

According to the report, nearly 60 per cent of the food produced in Canada is wasted annually. That 60 per cent is equal to about 35.5 million metric tonnes of food.  Of that,  32 per cent, – about 11.2 million tonnes of food –  was avoidable waste.

That’s a lot of edible food going to waste. The sheer weight of that 11.2 million tonnes is astounding to comprehend. is a heavy amount and would account for

  • 4 million buses (4.53 tonnes each )
  • 180,000 M1 Abrams tanks (62 tonnes each)
  • 58,000 Boeing 787s (192.7 tonnes each)

“Every human being has something to do with food loss and waste in Canada. We do not value food and we see it as a commodity and know there’s always more,” said Lori Nikkel, CEO of Second Harvest. “We don’t value it but we need to start”.

How did we get here? What makes Canadians waste so much food? Are Canadians simply throwing out perfectly good food for the fun of it? The issue of food waste is complex and there are many factors that contribute to it.

“There is this idea that food has to be its stereotypical perfect image for us to enjoy it,” says Devon Fernandes. Fernandes is the sustainability specialist from Humber College, a leader in sustainability across Canadian post-secondary institutions.  “There are a lot of fruits and vegetables that have certain blemishes but taste the exact same and are completely healthy for us to eat and yet they’re thrown out because supermarkets think consumers won’t want them” said Fernandes.

“There’s a large movement to address the entirety of the food waste cycle,” said Fernandes. “if you can reduce food waste at the beginning, so when farmers are dealing with it and manufacturers and any kind of delivery people are working [with it] and trying to reduce it [at the industrial sector] that is a great way you can help”.

Examining the food waste epidemic and pinpointing where food was being lost was a priority for Second Harvest according to Nikkel. “The purpose of this report really was to show where the problems laid and the problems lie in industry. Consumers waste food and I’m sure we need to address that but 79 per cent of that food waste and loss is happening by industry before it even touches a consumer,” she said.

Restaurants frequently have to reconcile the amount of food they waste. Bharat Saili has been working in the culinary industry for almost ten years, and has seen the issues restaurants have with waste. “In a franchise restaurant it’s probably a bit higher than normal just because it’s very regimented about shelf dates” said Saili. “It’s very much an ‘it’s made on this day, it’s good until this day, it has to be thrown out by that date.’”

One frequent critique of food waste from the restaurant sector is that they should donate their waste to those in need. “A lot of grocery stores throw out tons of food at the end of the day… but in France they’re forced to donate that food to homeless shelters around the city which is a great initiative,” said Fernandes.

The grocery sector in Canada is attempting to right the course when it comes to food waste.  The Walmart Foundation recently donated 1.8 million dollars to Second Harvest to fund their research into the food waste epidemic. Even Canadian grocery chains like Loblaws and Metro have started to donate to Second Harvest.

Donations to homeless shelters in Canada prove more difficult. “It’s really difficult for us to donate any food,” said Saili. “Especially because it’s a liability issue for our parent company. They want to minimize any kind of outside issue that could come from the food.”

Second Harvest uses its site foodrescue.ca to try to avoid liability issues, by connecting businesses donating food to organizations in need – such as charities, nonprofits, school nutrition programs and shelters.

While cleaning up the food waste from the supply chain and restaurant sectors could help, it does not solve the issue and there are still things we can do at home to battle food waste.

When it comes to understanding food waste, one key concept is avoidable and unavoidable waste. Unavoidable food waste are the parts of food waste we cannot escape. Items like coffee grounds, egg shells, vegetable scraps and bones are examples of unavoidable waste. No matter what we do, this waste will always be generated.  Avoidable food waste is the bigger issue, perfectly good food that is thrown out.

Second Harvest provides many tips for battling food waste at home. Resources on their site, foodrescue.ca can help educate you about proper food storage and shelf life, but there are more common tricks as well.

Lori Nikkels, CEO of Second Harvest has some simple tips:

  • Don’t shop when you’re hungry
  • Best before dates are not a safety consideration. Best before is a manufacturer freshness label that is very conservative
  • Don’t bulk shop
  • Don’t over purchase and don’t buy two for ones if you know you’re not going to eat it
  • Know how to store food – storing it appropriately will elongate the life of it

One of the easiest ways to battle avoidable food waste is meal planning. Since planning is already popular in the weight loss/healthy living community, pivoting towards an environmental focus is not difficult. Knowing how much produce you need and buying exactly that amount helps cut down on the amount of avoidable food waste you produce. It is easy to go out and buy a box of spring mix and tell yourself you’re going to use it throughout the week. It is harder, but better for the planet, to plan out exactly how much spring mix you need and buy that.

Efficiency with produce isn’t a new concept, it’s a common practice in a lot of forward-thinking restaurants. “I know a lot of restaurants that do from scratch cooking will try to maximize their usage on vegetables,” said Saili.  “So from trimmings, top and bottoms or peelings, everything will be used for stocks or roasting or braising.”

When you buy your produce it important to consider what you’re looking for. Many grocery stores sell discounted fruit and produce. These items are usually closer to their best before date or have visual issues that prevent them from being considered desirable. This concept, of visually un-appealing food, helps contribute towards our food waste issues. Large amounts of produce are thrown out due to not meeting visual standards. This concept can be battled by being realistic and knowing your meal plan. If you’re baking, visual blemishes on an apple do not matter –, you’re probably going to cut them up anyway.  Most blemishes on a carrot or potato can be removed with a peeler or simply be cut around. If you can save money on produce, and lower the amount of food waste you produce, why not?

Food waste is a battle Canadians can win. One of the best tools in the battle against food waste is introspection.

“We certainly need to look at how we’re purchasing products. I think mainly we need to look at how we’re thinking about food” said Fernandes.

 

 

 

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