Waste not, want not

After the holiday season of culinary over-indulgence, my refrigerator was laden with bits and pieces of food. I set to the task of tidying things up, which inevitably led me to throwing food out. In short order, I had filled my counter-top compost bin with a wide array of foodstuffs: a couple of ziplock bags of green liquid that bore no resemblance to anything real, leftover apple chutney that was sprouting a bit of mould (I should know by now that almost no one in my family likes chutney with roast pork), several jars of sauces that were completely unrecognizable, two tubs of yogurt that looked like science experiments and several pieces of dried out, crusty cheese.

As penance for my wanton wastefulness, I decided to do some research on who’s responsible for wasting food in Canada.

From field to fork to waste

According to a 2018 report from the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, when all stages of the food supply chain are included, 396 kilograms of food per capita is wasted in Canada every year, placing us second only to the United States in this race to the bottom.

In a country where more than 850,000 people visit food banks each month, throwing out $31 billion worth of food each year is deplorable.

This food waste creates 193 million tonnes of greenhouse gas, which is roughly equivalent to that produced by 41 million cars driven continuously for one year.

In other words, wasting food doesn’t just cost money or perpetuate social problems such as poverty and hunger; it is contributing to global warming.

Who’s wasting what?

Much to my surprise, in my research I learned that households are responsible for 47% of food waste (by value) in this country. Other offenders: processors (20%), retail stores and farms (10% each), restaurants and hotels (9%), transport/distribution (4%) and international catering (1%).

We waste more vegetables than anything else – they make up 30% of what we throw out. Leftovers make up 13% of waste in households.

Composting programs, which are, of course, a good thing, have made throwing out produce less guilt-inducing. It is much easier to toss slightly less than perfect vegetables or fruit into a compost bucket on the counter than into a garbage bag, because we can convince ourselves that it is going on to do something worthwhile, but it is still wasted food.

While households have a lot to answer for, the food industry from farm to fork is a serious offender when it comes to food waste. Clearly, addressing the problem requires change at both the systemic and household levels.

Individually

At the individual level, if you want to waste less food, check out the website of Love Food Hate Waste, which is full of quick facts as well as useful and attractive infographics illustrating the extent of our food waste problem.

There are tips for keeping food fresh, with lists of suggested storage ideas for dozens of vegetables and fruits. The “use it up” section provides great ideas for fixing and using rather than throwing out wilted, stale, salty, burned or overcooked foods.

Here are some other suggestions:

Grocery shop with a list that you have made after checking your fridge and pantry to see what you already have. That way, you won’t find yourself with three open jars of capers as well as a brand new one.

Plan your main meals for the week and use that as the basis for your grocery shopping list.

Shop for fresh produce frequently, buying just what you need for the next few days each time.

Consider getting a smaller refrigerator. That will force you to buy less and make it harder for food to go missing in it. (Full disclosure: I have a large fridge and resist every suggestion by my partner that we downsize, even though I know that we should.)

Check out recipes for cooking with leftovers. There is a lot you can do with some wilty vegetables and leftover cooked meat or fish.

And remember: those best before dates are suggestions for when food may no longer be at peak flavour or quality; they are not about the safety of the food. Even if mould has invaded your yogurt or cheese, you can scrape that off and quite safely eat what remains.

Systemic change

Joint research by Value Chain Management International (VCMI) and Second Harvest, a Canadian food rescue organization, due to be published this month, concludes that the food industry is unsustainable in its present form.

While restaurants only contribute 9% of all food waste, there is much they could do to reduce this amount. Serving smaller portions would be a great starting point. A few restaurants in a number of countries have approached the issue of food being left on the plate by applying a surcharge to patrons’ bills if they do so.

Buffets are great, but almost everyone’s eyes are bigger than their stomachs. How about a buffet where your plate has to be empty before you can return for more food?

All those baskets of uneaten bread and buns start to add up, too, so why not offer bread only when the diner asks for it or charge a small fee for it?

Grocery stores (responsible for 10% of food waste) could position their damaged produce more prominently — there is a lot of good food to be found on those damaged shelves, but they are often hard to find. More stores could follow the lead set by some of selling imperfect produce intentionally; actually marketing it as something that is desirable.

As I drifted from website to website about food waste, I was pretty impressed by the number of corporate/community partnerships that have developed in recent years to help get what would otherwise be wasted food onto the plates of people who need that food.

These partnerships include such projects as redistributing leftover food from grocery stores, farmers’ markets, conferences and other such events to shelters and programs for homeless people; running community kitchens where people with limited access to full kitchens work with professional cooks to turn excess farm produce into meals that can be taken home and frozen for later eating; school programs to encourage kids to understand food and like to cook, and so on.

One of the best fundraisers I have ever attended was put on by Kingston’s Loving Spoonful a few years ago. We were treated to a five-course dinner prepared by five local chefs, who used only food waste to create their dishes. They had access to grocery store food waste, leftovers from that week’s farmers’ market and offerings from farms in the region. Each chef introduced their course, explaining the provenance of the food they had worked with. The meal was delicious and the table conversations stimulating. An auction after the meal, interspersed with short talks about food waste and the projects the event would support, raised more money for the organization.

Making wasting food a cultural taboo

2019 is going to be my year to cut down on the amount of food I waste. I don’t think this will be easy – I am a cook and love nothing more than having a very full fridge, freezer and pantry to work with. My first two goals?

I want to reduce the amount of food in my green bin by 50 per cent. I may not be ready to give up my big fridge yet, but I can stop using it as a temporary stop for food between the grocery store and garbage.

When I eat out, I am going to try to ask for smaller servings or turn down the basket of bread, if I know I am not going to eat it. Maybe if it doesn’t get put on my plate or table, it can be used for someone else. And maybe if enough of us do that, restaurants will change their approach.

Wish me luck and send suggestions for other ways we can all reduce our food waste.

One thought on “Waste not, want not

  1. The economic and environmental implications of significantly reducing food waste are interesting. We wouldn’t need as much farmland, or as many farmers. Grocery stores would sell a lot less, meaning less need for employees and space. As with so many things, if we mostly just buy what we need, the basis for the consumer economy collapses.

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