A Social Innovation Lab to Tackle Urban Food Waste

Reposted from: Huffington Post

By: Tammara Soma

Is it possible to imagine a food system without food waste? After all, waste is really in the eye of the beholder.

Hydroponic system in the backyard of a house.


In Canada, it is estimated that food waste costs $31 billion dollars annually while in a Hunger Count report, close to 900,000 Canadians (many of them children) require access tofood banks. Being Indigenous in Canada means that you are 28.2% more likely to be food insecure, this is also the case with being black (27.8%). When some people can afford to waste perfectly edible food while others go hungry, and when some businesses dump good food while Canadians up north struggle with food prices that are three times higher than their Canadian counterparts, it is clear that we have a food system that is broken and unjust. For those tackling food waste through dumpster diving, this act is more than an environmental and political statement; for many people, it is an act of survival.

As a resident of Toronto, an urban centre of 2.8 million residents and a city that prides itself on being the financial services capital of Canada, I was surprised to discover that the issue of food insecurity is quite high. In fact, Toronto has one of the highest rates of urban poverty in Canada. For example, one study found that anywhere between 10 to 13 percent of Toronto households suffer from food insecurity. That means approximately 364,000 households in Toronto are going hungry, which is over 6 times the number of people that could fit inside the Rogers Centre!

Toronto is also vulnerable to hunger. According to estimates by retailers, at any particular time, there are only three days worth of fresh food in the city.

Shockingly, even with the staggering number of food insecure households and vulnerability to hunger, organizations like Second Harvest are constantly on the move to rescue perfectly edible foods that would have otherwise been dumped. So far, over 8 million pounds of food have been rescued in the past 12 months by this organization alone. While folks like Second Harvest are doing their best to help, they cannot fight the food waste problem alone. The diversion of surplus food in urban areas cannot be our only solution to a systemic problem.

Studies have shown that urbanization is one of the drivers of food waste. This is because urbanization increases the logistic and complexities of food distribution and food gets wasted along the supply chain. Considering that over 80% of the Canadian population lives in urban areas, we need to dig in deeper to investigate the solutions for urban food waste.

So how can we prevent food waste and work towards a sustainable food system where Canadians and Torontonians in particular have access to wholesome nutritious and culturally appropriate food once and for all?

As a food system planner (i.e. an urban planner that takes food system considerations into planning sustainable cities) the answer to this big question lies in a systems approach.

We need to move beyond the same old stop-gap and band aid solutions to address food waste and understand our food system holistically. This is why I am excited to announce the upcoming launch of the Food Systems Lab which is sponsored by the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation.

Brainstorming with stakeholders across the food supply chain


The Food Systems Lab will hold its first session in the Fall of 2016 to determine policy options to address food waste and will be a year long initiative piloted in the City of Toronto. The Lab will be one of the first projects to use a social innovation labapproach to tackle the issue of food waste and food insecurity in Toronto. To come up with long-term solutions, the Lab will bring together a variety of stakeholders to develop a common understanding of the problem of food waste and then work together on innovative solutions through information collection, analysis, creative engagement, and prototype development. We also hope to collaborate with Indigenous communities to understand the systems knowledge of the first inhabitants of Toronto, the Indigenous elders and knowledge keepers.

Considering the scale of the problem and the growing urban population, it is about time that we invest in innovative solutions to address the issue of food waste. For Tkaronto ( Mohawk for “where there are trees standing in water”), this means potentially combining new methods such as the social innovation lab and integrating the long-standing wisdom of Indigenous food systems.

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