Closing the Food Loop Challenges

On June 10, Food Systems Lab will be co-hosting Closing the Food Loop, a hackathon to work on innovative solutions to reduce food waste and create a circular food system in the Greater Toronto Area.

We are pleased to announce the challenges for this hackathon that our teams will work on throughout the day. The winning team will receive a $300 cash prize. We also have a $200 second place prize and $100 third place prize.

Tickets are available for $15. Lunch and snacks are included with the ticket price.

From Over 30 Ideas to 7 Business Concepts

At Workshop 2, our goal was to expand our thinking from the problem of food waste to systemic solutions that can reduce food waste in Toronto. We took participants through a process of generating lots of divergent solution ideas, then whittled these ideas down to a handful of business concepts.

One fascinating exercise is seeing how the ideas morphed through the process. Thanks to the detailed note-taking efforts of our volunteer facilitators, we can share the evolution of the 30+ ideas to 7 business concepts.

First Brainstorm in an Innovation Ideas Cafe

Process: Each person received a summary of outputs from Workshop 1. They received three cue cards, each linked with one of the outputs (trend map, horns of the dilemma, timeline). They then wrote the most important problem area or issue they think must be addressed to reduce food waste in Toronto onto the front of the cue card. On the back of the cue card, they wrote an idea for a solution to the problem or issue. This list is a compilation of the ideas from the cue cards, in alphabetical order, with duplicates removed or similar ideas merged.

  • Accompany municipal compost program with education (e.g. compost is not a solution but a last resort)
  • Anti-oppressive lens; getting marginalized groups to the table about food waste/food system issues
  • App to show near-wasted food
  • Bring back backyard chickens
  • Certification for food waste labelling or have businesses certified by level of food waste
  • Community food sharing and bartering
  • Community vermi-composting
  • Consistent date labelling policies that address food safety rather than quality; ‘use by’ instead of ‘best before’
  • Decentralization of food supply chain; reduce transportation so fresher for longer
  • Decentralizing access to food; community farms
  • Education around overproduction/consumption and waste (e.g. public campaigns)
  • Eliminate red tape that deters redirection of food waste
  • Engage people in how food is produced (e.g. how meat is produced, genetically-modified foods)
  • Examine reports on the operations and supply chain cost in both local and corporate finances
  • Fair conditions for migrant workers
  • Fair trade solutions
  • Feed animals food waste
  • Food recipients to connect with logistics/warehousing companies
  • Food recovery platform enables food donors to connect with food recipients
  • Implement basic income which will help people choose proper nutritious food
  • Improving organizing food at home and in supermarket for food quality & safety standards
  • Incentives to people for buying local foods
  • Landfill organics ban
  • Organize food supply chain based on demand instead of supply-driven
  • Publish a food scraps cookbook on how to turn scraps into food (e.g. soups, breads)
  • Relax bylaws to allow more urban composting and urban growing
  • Revamp Ontario labour laws (e.g. improve conditions for retail, restaurant workers, UberEats drivers)
  • Show people how food is created (e.g. go to farms, kill your food if you want animals, cooking classes, farming education)
  • System mapping
  • Tax wasteful and harmful products and put this money toward encouraging new farmers
  • Teaching growing food from food waste (lettuce grown from compost)
  • Use the empty back haul capacity in trucks, food orgs, bike couriers, UberEats
  • Valuing imperfect products in field or supermarket
  • Write a food charter

Ranking and Clustering Ideas for Bricolage

Process: Each person identified their top solution idea for reducing food waste in Toronto. They then made this idea ten times bolder and wrote it on a cue card along with the first step needed to implement this idea. The cue cards were passed around, reviewed by others and then ranked with a score of 1-5 (1=not interested, 5=very interested). The top scoring ideas were clustered into themes for bricolage groups. Then, any themes that did not emerge, but were still important to participants were identified and added to the list for bricolage. Ideas are listed in alphabetical order. Participants then chose groups for bricolage. The ideas that were integrated or merged into the groups are bolded.

  • App to monitor, broadcast food waste
  • Ban food waste
  • Best practices and community mapping
  • “Buy less” food campaign
  • Community bartering
  • Create Ministry of Waste Reduction
  • Domestic exchange
  • Food literacy in schools (including composting)
  • Food waste campaign
  • Grading (relaxing standards)
  • High density residential food spaces
  • In-store zero waste charts
  • Incentivize food donations
  • Monitor + track organic food waste
  • Near Expiration (retail) and “popular” restaurant
  • Restaurants connecting to community gardens
  • Schools as food hubs
  • Value-added products out of food waste
  • Waste reduction handling certificate


Process: On the second day, participants created bricolage sculptures in their groups with found objects. After creating and presenting their sculptures, they were asked to ‘destroy’ the sculpture by taking away the most important element. This process of creative destruction and rebuilding helped open up new creative possibilities.

Turning Ideas to Business Concepts on a Rhizome Impact Canvas

Process: After presentations of the rebuilt bricolage sculptures, participants re-grouped and selected ideas to map on a Rhizome Impact Canvas template, which is modelled after a business model canvas. The purpose of mapping an idea on a canvas is to ground-truth the implementation realities of the idea and turn it into a business concept to refine and test in the prototyping phase.

Seven ideas were expanded into rough business concepts. Original canvases are available in a compiled PDF.

Food Literacy in Schools: Comprehensive environmental and social curriculum in schools around food skills and food waste such as experiential learning with food management, gardening, composting.

Grade ‘C’ Food App: An app to create new local, regional and commercial channels for grade ‘C’ food.

Growing Local/Dining Local: Connect community gardens/urban growers with restaurants so the community gardens/urban growers have access to high quality compostable organics, restaurants divert organic waste, and restaurants also have access to purchase tasty, seasonal, local food.

Ministry of Waste Reduction: Create a ministry/department designated to waste reduction, with a focus at the local level. Switching from a waste management to waste reduction perspective.

National Food Policy Food Waste Campaign for Consumers/Households: Promote equitable access to food that is also environmentally and economically sustainable through a combination of policy, operational and promotional tools such as expansion of organics collection, food waste bans, and education on food literacy.

Solution Mapping: Connect and reform Torontonians/Ontarians/Canadians about food waste projects and transferable ideas to reduce duplication of effort.

Technology for Change: Introduce food processing technology at the farm level to decrease perishability while increasing revenue by capturing more the value chain through selling preserved crops throughout the year.


New Event: Closing the Food Loop – June 10

Photo by Simon Chen

Food Systems Lab is co-hosting the first ever Open Source Circular Economy Days (OSCEdays) event in Toronto!

Closing the Food Loop is a one-day ideas hackathon to work on innovative solutions to reduce food waste and create a circular food system in the Greater Toronto Area. This event is part of the global OSCEdays community that uses open source resources to create a shift to a sustainable circular economy. Participants will be working on challenges pitched by a range of start-up businesses, entrepreneurs, national associations, and others. Using transparent, open source methods, we will generate and test new ideas, prototypes, products, and designs.

Early bird tickets (before May 15) are only $10 and include lunch/snacks!

Date: Saturday June 10, 2017
Time: 9am to 5:30pm
Location: Sidney Smith Hall, 100 Saint George St, University of Toronto Room 5017

Cutting down on wasted food

Tammara Soma and Belinda Li were recently interviewed for an article on wasted food. Reposted from Investment Executive.

Canadians squander $31 billion worth of food every year. Food literacy – understanding how food is grown – along with a little creativity in the kitchen can help in reducing waste


By Beatrice Paez

A heap of green plantain peels boiled into a stew. Pickled beef tongue and lamb brain served on toast. Vodka distilled from whey. Pork skin fried into a crispy snack known as chicharrón. These were just some of the treats on the menu at the recent Trashed & Wasted festival in Toronto, which demonstrated uses of food scraps typically deemed inedible in North American culture.

If some of those dishes sound a bit unappetizing, that’s because, as much as palates have expanded with increased access to food from other cultures, there’s still a gap in our understanding of how remnants can be turned into something tasty.

“People think we’re going to serve you garbage, but it’s a ‘food rescue’ festival,” says Brock Shepherd, a chef and organizer of the festival, which sought to raise the public’s awareness of food waste. “We don’t expect people to do these things literally. It’s just to show people there are other things you can do.”

A study by the University of Toronto in 2012 found that one in eight Canadian households, or approximately 1.6 million households, contend with food shortage. Yet, much of uneaten food can be traced back to individual consumers – not the processing or delivery stages.

Processing accounts for 20% of the food that’s wasted, while individuals’ share of the pie is 47%, according to Value Chain Management International Inc. (VCMI), a consulting firm that seeks to curb food waste. The rest is lost through such stages in the “food value chain” as farming and retail.

Part of the issue of food waste stems from the fact that the “vast majority” of individuals can afford to waste food, says Martin Gooch, CEO of VCMI.

And we do waste food. Every year, Canadians chuck an estimated $31 billion worth of food, according to a report from VCMI.

Food literacy

“You wouldn’t throw [thousands of dollars] in the garbage,” Gooch says, “but that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

Food literacy is a prerequisite to understanding how, as individuals, people can reduce the amount they waste, according to Belinda Li and Tammara Soma, who work with Food Systems Lab at the University of Toronto. Li and Soma bring various stakeholders – policy-makers, food industry leaders, faith leaders and private citizens – together through a series of workshops on how to address the roots of food waste.

There are plenty of online resources offering ideas on how to make use of scraps and stale goods. Love Food Hate Waste (, for example, houses a collection of “leftover” recipes.

Cooking with scraps that usually are discarded doesn’t necessarily yield dishes as exotic as those served up at Shepherd’s festival. Broccoli stalks, for example, which often are thrown out, can be chopped and tossed into a stir-fry or blended into a soup, Li says.

There are endless ideas for recipes, Shepherd adds, if you can find new life for items that have been sitting in your refrigerator or freezer.

Make a weekly ritual of doing a “fridge inventory,” he suggests. Defrost goods and plan a meal around what’s available. Soups, stews and casseroles often are Shepherd’s go-to meal plan for making use of these foods.

There also are little storage tweaks to prevent spoilage. For example, try setting your fridge to the coldest temperature possible and storing the most perishable produce in the lowest section.

Self-professed foodies delight in experimenting with unfamiliar ingredients, taking a “snout to tail” approach to meat products and salvaging “ugly” produce.

Planning meals in advance and buying less than what a recipe calls for, or only what you need for two or three meals, Soma and Li say, can help reduce waste.

More than you need

Two-for-one deals and other tempting discounts encourage consumers to buy more than they need, Gooch says: “If you’re bumping up against ‘best before’ dates, you’re buying too much food.”

With many people so removed from the food-production process, just tossing out a head of wilted lettuce without a second thought can be easy. But when you are connected to the way food is grown, Li says, you’re less likely to waste it.

Establishing a connection to a food source, whether by volunteering at a community garden or going on a weekend excursion to a nearby farm, can make you think twice about wasting food.

“A way to reduce food waste is to see how food is made,” Li says. “When people start seeing that, they’ll think, ‘Maybe I can [still] eat that, or I will buy less’.”

Workshop 2: Photo Gallery

From Mar 1 to 2, we hosted our second Food Systems Lab workshop on designing solutions to address the issue of food waste. We applied our systems understanding developed in the first lab and used it together with social innovation tools and methods to identify emerging patterns, programs, initiatives, ideas that could transform the system. Here is a glimpse of what we did over the two days.

Hon. Glen Murray, Minister of Environment and Climate Change for Ontario and Special Advisor to the Food Systems Lab dropped by for a visit to share some opening remarks. Photo by Belinda Li.
Telling the story of workshop 1 through improv. Photo by Lesia Kinach.
The first cut of ideas at the end of the first day. Photo by Lesia Kinach.
Tammara Soma and Dr. Marie Wilson (Food Systems Lab Special Advisor on Indigenous Matters and Commissioner for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada) leading the closing circle on the first day. Photo by Ania Ek. 
Exploring our ideas through bricolage. In this exercise, groups sculpted their solutions using representative symbols from everyday objects they found outside or at home. This group worked on food literacy in schools as a way to reduce food waste by re-valuing food and building skills to prepare, preserve and store food. Photo by Belinda Li.
Sharing our bricolage creations. Photo by Ania Ek.
After creating the bricolage, groups were asked to remove the most important element and rebuild their bricolage. For this group (Ministry of Waste Reduction), they had to remove the connections between the three levels of government. Their solution transformed from the one on the left to the one on the right. Photos by Belinda Li.
Moving from ideas to concept. Each group used a Rhizome Impact Canvas to translate the ideas (the elements in the sculpture) into a business concept, like this one. Photo by Rafaela Gutierrez.


Food Systems Lab at the North American Workshop on Food Waste Reduction and Recovery

On February 28, the Food Systems Lab had a secret mission to complete at the North American Workshop on Food Waste Reduction and Recovery: audit the food waste from lunch. We succeeded.

The solid food waste that we found from plate scrapings at lunch. Photo by Tammara Soma.
The waste audit results. Most of the waste was actually liquids (tea, coffee, juice). We also didn’t weigh the food that was left behind on the buffet table, since we don’t know how much is saved, reused or donated.

Following our secret mission, we presented the results  of the waste audit and introduced the Food Systems Lab to more than 80 workshop participants from across North America. It was the last presentation of the day, and Tammara (with her boundless energy) filled the room with excitement and enthusiasm. Download the full presentation PDF.

Tammara Soma speaking to a room full of representatives from Canada, Mexico and the United States about the waste audit and Food Systems Lab. Photo by Belinda Li.


How Did We Get Here?

A Brief Glimpse into the History of Food in Toronto and Globally

By Tammara Soma

War and Food

Views of food and wasting as well as the system of food production have changed significantly in the past century. The differences in views can also be compared inter-generationally and between cultures. For example, Quested et al., (2013) found that the population of people over the age of 65 waste measurably less (approximately 25% less) than the rest of the population in the U.K. when the household size is controlled. This group of over 65 did not waste less due to environmental concerns. Rather, focus groups found that this particular group viewed the wasting of food or “wastefulness” in general as wrong (WRAP, 2007; Quested et al., 2013). A possible explanation for this observation is that this group endured austerity and food rationing during World War II and were also educated in more traditional teaching on cooking and food management (Quested et al., 2013). Indeed, this observation is corroborated by Evans, Campbell and Murcott (2013) as they found that food waste was visible in the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, notably from the constant messaging in print such as cookbooks, media and in war slogans such as “Food is Ammunition. Don’t waste it” (Evans, Campbell and Murcott, 2013, 13).

Cookbooks at the time were replete with recipes for re-making leftovers, using cold remains and messages such as, “great care is to be taken so that nothing that could be used is thrown away or suffered to be wasted in the kitchen” (Beeton, c. 1925, 293). However, the concepts of thrift, frugality, prudence, and ideas connecting virtue to wasting less generally faded after the end of the Second World War. Around this time, farmers were pushed to produce maximum amounts of food while incomes rose, refrigerator ownership grew and a new regime of excess food in the 1950s was established (Evans, Campbell and Murcott, 2013, 13). As Evans, Campbell and Murcott state, “[i]n a world of excessive and cheap food, it is not difficult to imagine frugality and careful household management offering a poor fit with the ‘zeitgeist’ of the Cold War Food Regime” (2013, 15).

From Farm to Metropolitan

An estimated 9 out of 10 Canadians lived in the rural areas in 1851 (Sustain Ontario, 2016). During this period, non-biodegradable packaging such as plastic and styrofoam was non-existent. With most waste being organic and without the availability or the need for centralized collection, residents fed organic waste to livestock such as pigs, rabbits and chickens. Therefore, connecting the nutrient loop in the form of conversion from food waste to animal protein was a normal practice.

The City of Toronto was officially incorporated in 1834. In the 1860s an outbreak of cholera resulted in a call to invest more into public health and formalizing municipal garbage collection (Gee, 2004). This led to the City incinerating most of its garbage in the 1900s and throwing the ash into ravines (Gee, 2004) instead of continuing management of waste on site by individual households.

Food processing industries were a central part of city life. In 1914, the City of Toronto was the site of the the first municipal abattoir where thousands of hogs are delivered to be slaughtered (Kheraj, 2013). In the 19th and early 20th century, animals such as cows, horses, pigs, as well as other types of domestic animals were an ordinary feature of the Toronto landscape (Kheraj, 2013). Toronto was a space where humans and animals lived and worked together, with pigs consuming refuse, horses hauling freight, chickens providing eggs and cows producing milk to be distributed across the city (Kheraj, 2013). In fact, an 1861 census record documented that Toronto residents kept 59 sheeps, 1,102 dairy cattle, as well as 1,368 pigs within the city vicinity. The growth of chickens in the city was rapid with an increase of chickens from 16,714 in 1891 to 21,226 by 1911 in various city lots (Kheraj, 2013). By late 19th century, overcrowding and increase in density made it less practical to keep domestic animals or maintain livestock.

By 2008, Canada has transformed significantly and according to census, 80% of Canada’s population reside in urban areas (StatsCan, 2008). As cities and density grow, this results in less space for individual households to grow their own food or managing food waste. The process of urbanization has played an important role in creating a phenomenon of “distancing”, which is defined broadly as the separation of primary resource-extraction decisions from final consumption decisions (Princen, 2002). In the case of food waste, the process of distancing also impact the relationships between food production and consumption as well as between consumption and waste.

The Dawn of the Supermarket

In the mid 20th century, Toronto was home to various independent grocery chains such as Power, Dominion, Steinberg (Bateman, 2015). A&P founded in New York in 1895 expanded to Canada in 1927 and operated in Toronto until 2005 eventually bought up by Metro (Bateman, 2015). Dominion, a grocery store founded at 174 Wallace Avenue Toronto in 1919 and quickly expanded. In the 1940s, the majority of shopping was done around the Queen’s and Yonge area with most of the residents heading downtown to go shopping (Interview Wayne Roberts). In 1945, food in Toronto was approximately 25% of a person’s budget with rent being another 25%. Therefore, wasting food was unthinkable. The household menu was designed around not wasting, for example, a typical working class menu would consist of roast beef Sunday, and Monday would be roast beef sandwich (Interview Wayne Roberts, 2016). The ethic of frugality was dominant and wasting food was not necessarily an environmental concern.

A supermarket in Toronto (Brennan, 2013)
A supermarket in Toronto (Bateman, 2015)

Beyond centralizing food consumption, the new supermarkets exemplified modernism, with bright lights, full to the brim, with chrome, and staff that always making sure that things are stocked. Key to the needs of a supermarket is a catchment area to provide the volume of customers as well as parking space as cars were necessary. In the early days of Dominion, the stores were staffed by clerks who would assist customers by fetching and bagging items instead of self-service (Bateman, 2015). Eventually, supermarkets became an anonymous experience with self-service instead of personalized fetching of foods. Key to the anonymity in the supermarket experience is a process of spatial and mental distancing with Torontonians increasingly removed further away from the source of food production and the labour that goes into farming. However, mandatory home economics classes and associations such as the Toronto Home Economics Association (THEA) (which was founded in 1938) ensured that residents had the basic understanding of meal. The field consists of studies in food and nutrition, dietetics, recipe development, food services, catering and more (OHEA, 2017). However, home economics is no longer being taught in schools across Toronto. According to Mark Wales (President of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture) “We’ve almost got a generation or more who really don’t know how to prepare a meal” (Brenan, 2013). With reduced knowledge of basic meal preparation and food processing such as canning and pickling, consequently, people’s ability to prevent food from being wasted by creatively transforming, and processing leftover or surplus food is also diminished.

Centralizing the Supply Chain

The creation of the Ontario Food Terminal was key to shaping the foodscape of Toronto. The terminal was developed due to numerous factors including the lack of access to farmers and produce distribution in Toronto’s downtown core and the steep competition with U.S farmers. Then Premier Frost (1949-1961) supported the development of the terminal through the Ontario Food Terminal Act to operate a wholesale produce market for the public. The Ontario Food Terminal enabled the growth of supermarkets as it facilitated the economy of scale and centralized the supply of food which made it easier for supermarkets to source food. By 1954, the tenants moved to from the downtown core to the Ontario Food Terminal (just in the outskirt of the City) (Ontario Food Terminal, nd).

Bateman, C. (2015). The lost of supermarkets of Toronto. Retrieved Jan 16th 2017 from <>

Beeton, I.M. (1925). Mrs Beeton’s Family Cookery, London: Warde Lock & Co.

Evans, D., Campbell, H., and Murcott, A. (2013). Waste Matters: New Perspectives on Food and Society. London, U.K: John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Kheraj, S. “Living and Working with Domestic Animals in Nineteenth-Century Toronto” in Urban Explorations: Environmental Histories of the Toronto Region. Eds. L. Anders Sandberg, Stephen Bocking, Colin Coates, and Ken Cruikshank. Hamilton: L.R. Wilson Institute for Canadian History, 2013. Pgs. 120-140.

OHEA (2017). Toronto Home Economics Association.

Princen, T., Maniates, M and Conca, K eds., (2002). Confronting Consumption Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002

Quested, T.E., Marsh, E., Stunnell, D., and Parry, A.D. (2013). Spaghetti soup: The complex world of food waste behaviours.Resources, Conservation and Recycling. 79: 43-51.

Sustain Ontario (2016). Food Waste Before World War II. Retrieved Jan 19th 2017, from: <>

WRAP.(2007). Understanding Food Waste. Retrieved Jan 19th 2017 from: