Our Story

Food Systems Lab is a research and innovation hub at Simon Fraser University. We work on solutions for equitable collaboration to reduce food waste and support a sustainable food system that enhances ecosystems, conserves natural resources, and mitigates climate change.

The coffee house. It has been credited for sparking the French Revolution and for stirring fear of sedition in the hearts of the establishment. It is a site of gathering for diverse people and for the exchange of often “radical” ideas along with copious amounts of caffeine. It was in the coffee house (L’Espresso Bar Mercurio in T[ka/o]ronto to be precise) that the idea for the Food Systems Lab was born.

In February 2016, Belinda Li and Tammara Soma — who were serendipitously connected via the waste network on the world wide web — met for the first time at a coffee house.  They discussed their concerns about the global issue of food waste, commiserated together about the scale of the problem, and the surge of “Band-Aid” solutions. At the same time, they found consultations and solutions related to food waste were lacking an inclusive and systemic approach.

“Enough of the Band-Aid solution!” they thought as they reflected on the root causes of the problem. Belinda, an environmental engineer that works somewhere in the fuzzy intersection of participatory and data-driven approaches to design suggested the potential of social innovation to spark systemic and disruptive changes that will foster innovation. Tammara, being the food system planner that she is, is interested in systemic approaches that promote collaboration across sectors and diverse perspectives. Belinda and Tammara brainstormed a name for this entity that should exist in the universe and finally chose the Food Systems Lab. They planned for this Lab to be founded on the principles of reconciliation, social justice and inclusion.

Perhaps their “brewing idea” may indeed become a reality after all.

Opportunity beckoned when the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation put out a call for proposal for projects that would engage with the community and make an impact. Aha! Perhaps their “brewing idea” (remember, they started in a coffee house) may indeed become a reality after all.

Like a team of recruiters for the (environmental and social) Justice League, Tammara and Belinda scoured the Greater T(ka/o)ronto Area and beyond, seeking amazing talents, expert mentors, unsung and established food heroes, and diverse voices to join the team. At a food waste research workshop, they met the perfect “partner in crime”: Dave Kranenburg of the Rhizome Institute. Dave is a well known expert in social innovation and is a farmer to boot. With a stacked proposal full of amazing supporters and a project idea to address food waste through intersectoral collaboration, reconciliation, and building relationships across the food system, the Food System Lab won the grant! The stars were further aligned when the McConnell Foundation offered further training and mentorship in social innovation processes through their LabWISE program.

After dozens of brainstorming meetings, three social innovation lab workshops with an amazing array of collaborators, one hackathon, an invitation to attend a National Food Policy consultation in Ottawa, and of course many, many friendships later, the Lab has continued its commitment to reconciliation, innovation, as well as inclusivity in developing food systems solutions.

The Lab successfully leveraged the first grant (and many hours of volunteer labour) to further our research and test the ideas from the first social innovation lab. We moved across the country to Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, on the unceded land of the Coast Salish nations; the traditional territories of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. Our research has expanded beyond food waste to school food programs, food asset mapping, bioplastic packaging, and digital agriculture.