On a fall morning at Feed it Forward, staff members unpack crates of apples, greens and berries for display at this storefront in the west end of Toronto. It’s quiet now, but students, seniors and other regulars will come by later to stock up on bread, produce, canned foods and prepared meals. They take what they need and go — or drop $5 or $20 in the donation jar at the counter.
This is Canada’s only pay-what-you-can grocery store. The staff are volunteers; donations help pay the rent; and all the food has been donated. “A lot of it is close to expiring, but there’s quite a lot you can do with it,” says Jagger Gordon, the founder and executive chef of Feed it Forward.
Every day, volunteers drive to a Whole Foods supermarket for produce the store can’t sell and to bakeries for surplus sourdoughs and baguettes. “We’re their garbage disposal,” says Gordon, who also gets calls about things like tractor-trailers full of frozen fish or produce so close to its best-before date that grocery stores won’t take it.
If Gordon can feed hundreds of people every day with food on its way to the bin, think of the possibilities. Food waste has become a mounting issue in our homes and across the entire food system. We throw away almost as much as we eat, yet one in eight Canadian homes struggles to put food on the table. “We take food for granted,” says Mike von Massow, associate professor of food, agriculture and resource economics at the University of Guelph. “It’s cheap, and we don’t have any real sense of the cost of throwing it out.”
According to a 2019 report by food-rescue organization Second Harvest, the Canadian food system produces 11.2 million metric tonnes of avoidable waste. A report by the National Zero Waste Council, an initiative that includes government, businesses and non-profits, calculates that this waste (plus spinoffs, such as disposal) costs the Canadian economy $100 billion a year.
Another cost is environmental. In landfills, rotting food releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas, generating 56.5 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. Composting sidesteps this problem, but doing it at the municipal level requires energy to run the facilities and transport waste.
“People think the problem rests with the grocery stores and the restaurants, but actually, we are a large part of the problem,” says Joanne Gauci, senior policy advisor with both Metro Vancouver and the National Zero Waste Council. In fact, Canadian households waste just as much as restaurants and retail.
We squander for many reasons. Some families shop infrequently — often because they don’t live near a grocery store. The rise of retailers like Costco selling megapacks at enticing discounts also makes it easier for us to buy in bulk and never get through it all, not to mention our big fridges that are easy to fill and forget. “I’m looking for a fridge right now,” says Getty Stewart, a Winnipeg-based professional home economist. “A 30-inch one would be fine, but they’re all 36 inches now. They’re getting bigger.”
At the grocery store, in a fit of good intentions, we might overstock on healthy produce. But then our busy lives can derail the meal plan (if families have time to cook from scratch in the first place). The adults get stuck at work, there’s hockey in the evening, someone picks up a pizza and the stuff we’d planned to eat for dinner gets thrown out.
Our passion for delicious food makes us waste more, too. Modern foodie culture has us excited about what we eat, but the focus is on chef-level Instagram perfection. The Jamie Olivers and Giada De Laurentiises of the world are constantly describing their ingredients and dishes as “gorgeous” and “fresh” — so where does that leave the bruised peach, the week-old tub of yogurt and the dun-coloured soup made with leftovers? “There’s a perception that brand new and shiny is best, and that relates to food as well,” says Stewart.
When wrapped up in gourmet cooking, we forget about the practical tips from older generations who lived through war rationing and the Depression. They learned how to use every scrap of that chicken for soups and stews, make bread crumbs from crusts and turn old fruit into crumbles, sauces and jams. “During the Second World War, we had a deficit of food,” says Lori Nikkel, CEO of Second Harvest. “But by the ’50s, we started looking at it in a different way. It’s now a commodity.”
Our grandparents were more likely to have lived on farms or have food gardens. Those who grow their own tomatoes or harvest from backyard fruit trees are naturally more connected and knowledgeable about food. For instance, many people don’t know that the little brown patches on apples come from leaves scraping against the peel in the wind — it’s totally natural, and there’s nothing wrong with the fruit.
Best-before dates are another culprit behind our wasteful tendencies. We toss older items to avoid food poisoning, often doing so prematurely thanks to the misleading nature of best-before dates. “They are probably the least well-understood information on food packing today,” says professor von Massow. A best-before date indicates when the food at hand should be at maximum taste and freshness. “They have more to do with when that product is perfect,” he says.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency dictates that expiry dates go on select items such as infant formula and meal replacements, and no one should use these products past their printed dates. The dates on meat should also be rigorously adhered to. But for everything else, being past the best-before date is not automatically dangerous — there aren’t even industry standards by which manufacturers choose the date. If you have a clean, well-ventilated fridge, your food will stay fresh. Dry pasta can last years.
What is driving our love for perfect and super-fresh food? “It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg question: are stores offering us perfect because we expect perfect, or do we expect perfect because stores are doing it?” says von Massow. Either way, grocery stores organize plentiful displays of unblemished food. Most retailers issue precise specifications about what they will buy, requesting specific shapes and sizes for produce and poultry.
As a result, farmers leave as much as half of their crops unharvested. “They are left in the field because they are the wrong size or shape. They don’t match the standard, or they have minor blemishes,” says Stewart.
Some farmers can sell the gnarled goods to food processors and manufacturers (it doesn’t matter if a tomato is bruised if it’s going to end up as a can of soup). However, they often get a lower price even though it costs just as much to grow a funny-shaped vegetable as a perfect one.
To combat our society’s obsession with flawless food, Canadian innovators have come up with novel ways to get us excited about surplus or recycled foods. Toronto-based startup Flashfood offers a delivered box of so-called “ugly” foods directly from farmers.
Flashfood has also been working with three Loblaw-owned grocery stores in southern Ontario to offer discounted produce, meats, dairy and bakery treats hovering near their best-before dates through a smartphone app. While stores do this on their own with some food, many have policies about selling items too close to best-before dates and have limited markdown plans for packaged foods. Flashfood celebrates this food, puts it all in one place (in most stores, shoppers have to stumble across freezer and dairy deals), and generally makes it easier and more appealing to snap up. “We’ve taken the discount rack and made it look sexy and put it on your phone,” says Jas Banwait, the company’s marketing manager.
Shoppers purchase items through an app and pick them up at the Flashfood fridge in the Loblaw store. The deals are good, including half price for a club-size package of pork tenderloin. Flashfood takes a cut and offers stores a way to sell items they may not have otherwise. The app also provides analytics so the stores can better track this category. In August 2018 alone, Flashfood helped divert 6,800 kilograms of food from the landfill.
Tackling food waste in restaurants is another challenge. The Recycling Council of Ontario has recently completed a pilot study in Oshawa, Ont., that found a way to get food that would normally go in the trash to those who need it. Restaurants can pop leftovers into the fridge and call Feed the Need, an organization that will deliver it to service groups like food banks, shelters and soup kitchens.
Similarly, Second Harvest recently launched the Food Rescue website. It allows restaurants to log on when they have surplus food to give away, and the site connects them to a nearby service organization in need. The site also ensures the receiving organization has the appropriate appliances, like a freezer if needed.
Some of these projects that divert food waste are in their early stages, but they have potential to grow. And more may come along as organizations, both non- and for-profit, see opportunities. This emerging approach will flourish if we change our mindsets and embrace food not as a commodity to buy, sell and toss at whim, but as a gift and a privilege. When we get less precious about reheating leftovers, toasting up dry bread or getting creative with bruised bananas, we learn to appreciate the bounty we have. All food can be good food, if we let it.
Diane Peters is a Toronto-based writer, editor and teacher.
This story first appeared in The United Church Observer’s March/April 2019 issue with the title “Waste not, want not.”
For more of Broadview’s award-winning content, subscribe to the magazine today.