After a weekend of brunching and bar snacks, there’s no better feeling than that of a fully stocked fridge. The shelves are perfectly organized into produce, dairy and protein and your mind is titillated by the endless possibilities of a week of home-cooked meals. The creature comforts of a full fridge go beyond our gluttonous excitement and make us feel safe; food is a survival tool, after all. But by the time Monday rolls around and you are inevitably running late, you start to fall back into weekly patterns. Maybe you stop at Starbucks on your way to work and pick up a breakfast sandwich, work late a couple nights that week and order take-out to the office or pick up a bite on your way home. Suddenly it’s Sunday and the avocados you bought last week have over-ripened, your spring mix has gone limp and putrid and that on-sale portion of ground meat you planned an epic taco night around has started to perspire. So like most Canadians who fall into these patterns, you end up throwing away your weekly bounty and then running to the store to repurchase it.
If while reading this, an unswallowable amount of guilt starts to lodge itself into your throat, you can take a minimal amount of comfort in the fact that you’re not alone. Most Canadians are right there with you, falling into these wasteful patterns completely unaware of the greater harm they have on the planet, world hunger and the global economy. With no intention of throwing sole blame on us for our contribution to these world issues, this Earth Day it’s time to accept some responsibility, because honestly, we could all be doing a lot better.
In Canada, 58% of all food that’s produced is wasted or lost. To put that into perspective, that’s 35.5 million metric tonnes of food wasted every year. “58%, that’s more food than we actually consume that gets lost or wasted. That’s huge,” said Lori Nikkel, the CEO of Canada’s largest food recovery organization, Second Harvest. For 35 years, Second Harvest has been leading the study and management of Canada's national food waste issue. Their mission is to help reduce the radical amount of food waste that ends up in landfills and to help the 4 million hungry Canadians have access to healthy food. They’ve found that food waste is not simply generated by throwing out that pound of two-week-old slimy cold cuts. You’re not off the hook, but that the problem lies higher up the supply chain.
“We focus our research on volume, not on value, because when you go further down, the value’s higher,” said Nikkel. “What’s unique about that is that we’re not unique. This is a global problem. There is more than enough food to feed the whole world. We have a systems problem. So how do we ensure that a) we stop wasting all this food and b) we start redirecting it to organizations that use food in their programming,” said Nikkel. Second Harvest has found that 32% of our annual food waste is edible and can be redirected to people in our communities. Not to mention it would be almost $49.46 billion recovered in financial losses.
To combat food waste and food insecurity, Second Harvest launched their food recovery app, Food Rescue, in 2018. Aside from their constant work sending trucks across the country, collecting donations that are then networked out to over 384 social service agencies, this app has enabled smaller donations to be part of the equation. “Basically, if you are a restaurant or retailer, it doesn’t matter what size you are—you could be huge or you just register on the system—you upload the type of food you have for donation and it pings community organizations in a radius that's appropriate,” said Nikkel. Toronto’s Bain Co-op, Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields and Franklin Horner Community Centre have received over 1000 pounds of food in 2019 thanks to Food Rescue. These donors can also see how many greenhouse gas emissions they are avoiding by donating to local non-profits.
So we know food waste has an impact on global food insecurity, but what we don’t see is that it also makes a significant contribution to Canada's greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. “If food waste were a country, it would emit GHG’s that would only be second to the US and China,'' said Nikkel. So the stress on finding solutions on a smaller and more local scale is just as important as on the systemic level.
Toronto’s Union is known for being one of the first farm-to-table restaurants to hit the uber-trendy Ossington strip. Ten years after its opening, chef Teo Paul is still doing his part to manage food waste by capitalizing on the bounty of local purveyors, his farm in Kimberly, ON, and local beef from his neighbouring butcher shop, Côte de Boeuf. “Ted [Thorpe, Hamilton, ON] comes over with three bushels of green peppers. It's not overwhelming, cause we’re never too tied into anything,” said Paul. “I think being locked into menus is archaic. It’s harder [to manage waste] and it definitely feels older, because you just can’t react and your orders are very black and white.”
Paul also believes that restaurants with non-seasonal menus are more likely to fall into traps of over-ordering. “You gotta order 15 per cent less and make 15 per cent less and if we run out, it’s okay, that’s what we want,” said Paul. “Even if it’s something super cheap, like herbs, then people get obsessed with the freaking herbs and then they forget about other stuff. You never get on top of the problem, you’re always kind of shaving off the top soil.”
On top of separating their garbage, recycling and organic waste, Union is also very committed to finding different ways to manage their food waste. “What we’re trying to do is use all the trimmings of all the vegetables, put them into big barrels, hull them up to the farm and compost.” said Paul. The composting program at Union is just the first step. “You know at the restaurant we have three organic bins for the whole week, but we fill up four in one night, whether it’s oranges or whatever, but we could separate it, compost it, do other things if we had to. We could become more inventive,” said Paul.
Kelsey Ramage, owner and mixologist at Toronto cocktail bar Supernova Ballroom, takes that notion to heart. Ramage and her partner, Ian Griffiths, started Trash Tiki collective to educate restaurants on how to make the most of ingredients they may think only have one purpose. “Instead of just juicing carrots and throwing away the pulp, we’re using the juice, and then we’re using the pulp. We're laying down a kind of eau de vie, so the pulp goes directly into a little bit of vodka and sugar and we let that sit for four months to infuse, and then we’ll take the rest and dilute it for another cocktail. We’re also dehydrating the pulp and blitzing it up to make a powder to use for garnish,” said Ramage. In order to really implement these waste reduction systems, everyone has to be on the same page. “We’re lucky in Toronto that we actually have the ability of organic pickup and recycling. So in most restaurants, that’s become the standard, hopefully,” said Ramage.
On every level, it seems there are changes that could be implemented to reduce food waste. And now more than ever, we need to be conscious of how our actions reverberate onto the planet. So remember to compost, separate your trash and eat your damn groceries.