Workshop 1: Pictures are worth thousands of words

Tammara welcoming all our relations to workshop 1. Photo by Omar Elsharkawy.
Tammara welcoming all our relations to workshop 1. Photo by Omar Elsharkawy.
Our learning circle, immersing in indigenous lessons from Maria Montejo. Photo by Omar Elsharkawy.
Our learning circle, immersing in indigenous lessons from Maria Montejo. Photo by Omar Elsharkawy.
How did we get here? Exploring personal, organizational, regional, national and global history to uncover causes of food waste. Photo by Omar Elsharkawy.
How did we get here? Exploring personal, organizational, regional, national and global history to uncover causes of food waste. Photo by Omar Elsharkawy.
Debriefing 'Mission: Research' in our secret bunker. Photo by Omar Elsharkawy.
Debriefing ‘Mission: Research’ in the depth of our secret bunker. Photo by Omar Elsharkawy.
Drawing a collage of our food waste observations on Black Friday around Dundas and Yonge. Photo by Omar Elsharkawy.
Drawing a collage of our food waste observations on Black Friday around Dundas and Yonge. Photo by Omar Elsharkawy.

PhD student Tammara Soma wants to break the wasted food cycle

Reposted from U of T News.

U of T PhD candidate Tammara Soma stands by one of the university’s vegetable gardens (photo by Romi Levine)


We’re all guilty of wasting food.

Sometimes we dump the leftovers in the trash after a big meal, or we find forgotten food in the fridge that has long since expired.

Restaurants, grocery stores and food distributors are also wasteful – throwing out ugly-looking but perfectly good produce and getting rid of products as soon as they hit the “best before” date.

In fact, according to Value Chain Management International, a sustainability-focused consultancy firm, it’s estimated that $31-billion worth of food is wasted every year in Canada.

Tammara Soma hopes to break the cycle of wasted food and wasted money. The University of Toronto PhD student in the Faculty of Arts & Science and Trudeau Foundation Scholar founded the Food Systems Lab, which aims to work with private, public and community organizations to find solutions to Canada’s waste problem.

Read more about Soma’s research

“The role of the Food Systems Lab is to bring all these diverse, multidisciplinary stakeholders and collaborate together,” she says.

The lab, funded by the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, will be conducting a series of workshops beginning Nov. 24 to find the root of the waste problem

“The idea is that at the end of the Food Systems Lab, we would come up with interventions – a prototype that can be tested in a microfood system to see how it works,” says Soma.

According to U of T research, almost 12 per cent of Ontarians are food insecure – meaning they have trouble accessing the food they need to have a healthy, balanced diet.

“We can’t keep going on this path where we waste food and waste resources,” says Soma.

Planning graduate student Kelsey Carriere is doing research with the Food Systems Lab. She has been conducting interviews with different organizations along the food supply chain from restaurants to community groups.

“One of my most enlightening interviews so far has been with an elder from a traditional knowledge centre who was giving an Indigenous perspective on how food is valued, on gratitude and how nothing should go to waste,” she says.

Carriere says there is some reluctance on the part of food producers and suppliers to adopt a waste-reduction strategy.

“Nobody’s against it in principle. It’s really just a question of logistics. At a large-scale corporate-level, when you’ve got a system that works, and you’re being asked to redesign that, it’s a daunting task,” she says.

Changes also need to be made by consumers and retailers, says Virginia Maclaren, associate professor and chair of the department of geography and planning and an expert in waste management.

“Households are constrained in many ways in terms of how they reduce food and produce food waste by time constrains, by family constrains, by marketing constraints – they’re sold certain types of foods that they maybe don’t need,” says Maclaren, who is the special advisor to the Food Systems Lab.

Those who are willing adopt the “waste not” philosophy of a new generation of city planners.

“With growing urbanization and a growing population, we need to feed all the people. I think that’s part of the reason why I call myself a food systems planner,” says Soma.

This new type of planning is growing in popularity, says Maclaren.

“Demand for it is starting to explode because municipalities are developing food plans, food policy councils or trying to integrate food considerations into their official plan,” she says.

Read about the food waste symposium Soma helped organize

Apply Now for the Food Systems Lab

The application process to participate in the first workshop is now open. If you would like to take a visible leadership role in helping to shape the future of a food system in the Greater Toronto Area that minimizes waste while unlocking new opportunities for collaboration with leaders in the food system, please complete an online application form by November 8, 2016. Applicants will be notified by November 11, 2016 if they are selected to participate.

The Lab will run as a pilot for one year with three workshops:

  1. Seeing the System (November 24-25, 2016) – The goal of this workshop is to gain a broad and deep understanding of the system and open new possibilities for interpretation. We will use whole system thinking tools to uncover assumptions, mental models, and bring a diversity of viewpoints.
  2. Designing (March 2016, dates TBD) – Social innovation tools and methods will be used to identify emerging patterns, programs, initiatives, ideas that could transform the system. Possible innovations and opportunities will be explored.
  3. Prototyping (July 2016, dates TBD) – Design thinking tools will be used to prototype possible innovations and opportunities. A rapid iteration process is used to maximize learning while minimizing the feedback loop.

Working groups will be formed at the first workshop and will continue on initiatives between workshops.

Workshop Fee

The participation fee is $100. This fee includes lunch and refreshments on both days of the workshop. Full and partial bursaries are available on an as-needed basis.

Lab Participant Attributes

We are seeking leaders in Toronto with the following attributes:

  • Ability to influence the actions of your organization
  • Deep curiosity
  • Passion for social innovation
  • Ability and desire to commit the time required
  • Comfort with ambiguity
  • Trust in the process
  • Links with other organizations and networks in the food system
  • Love of learning and desire to share their unique insights and experience
  • Openness to the idea that if we want to change the system, we also need to see our role in it and be open to changing ourselves at some level

Fighting Food Waste Through Community Social Innovation

Reposted from Community First at Carleton University

by Omar Elsharkawy, CFICE Admin RA

More than half of the world’s population now live in cities and other urban settings. That means farmland often gets paved for urban development. While the number of farms and farmers in Canada are decreasing, making food ever more valuable, Canada wastes approximately $31 billion worth of food every year. That accounts to around 40% of food production. People have been distanced from their food source and are far away from the consequence of consumption. We’re wasting the labor and resources of people in distant areas and countries. The more that this happens, the more that we create a vulnerable city that can topple at any moment.

portrait of Tamara Soma

Tammara Soma, PhD candidate at UofT and 2014 Pierre Elliott Trudeau Scholar, has taken the matter into her own hands. Soma recently launched a social innovation project titled ‘Food Systems Lab’ which aims to determine policy options to address one of the century’s biggest challenges: preventing food waste. The project’s ultimate outcomes are: 1. Tangible solutions that reduce food from being wasted and add efficiency to the food system. 2. National level policies to support a sustainable food system that conserves water and energy, enhances ecosystems, and mitigates climate change. 3. Equitable collaboration between stakeholders in the food system, especially those from marginal communities. The lab’s social innovation approach was chosen because social innovation includes long term solutions and interventions, interdisciplinary, evidence based policy.

Soma hopes that evidence generated from this project will lead to better urban planning that incorporates sustainable food systems and include other aspects such as resiliency to climate change. “Urban Planners can contribute positively or break food systems.”

The project includes a lot of collaboration between campus and community. On the subject of food waste on campus, Soma says universities are big institutions that have a lot of space with land and purchasing power. She believes students on campus are starting to take imitative to deal with food waste on campus but universities can do more. “To start making an academic influence, we have to start with the university itself.”

Visual brain storming map with topics and connecting linesOne of the project’s priorities is to understand and collaborate with the Indigenous communities in Toronto and GTA. In Indigenous cultures, the idea of waste doesn’t exist. Engaging with urban farmers is another priority. The project currently has representation from the urban farming community. Soma is also looking into bringing members from faith based communities as they have an influence in society and bring about ethics around food waste. The Pierre Elliott Trudeau Scholar says that this was the most challenging aspect of the project but arguably one of the more important ones. Ultimately, the priority is to produce evidence based policy.

The project is also looking for people who would be interested in collaborating with and contributing to the project. For more info contact:

The Big Picture Versus Big Meme of Wasted Food

By Wayne Roberts

‘Food waste is very photogenic. Food scattered around a landfill site is an attention-grabbing, if repulsive, photo-op. Oddly shaped veggies and fruit can be re-imagined as cute and cuddly conversation pieces. A picture is worth a thousand words. But a meme that sticks in the brain is worth a thousand appeals to reason.’

For our field trip in this week’s newsletter, I‘d like to take you for a stroll along the boardwalk beside Lake Ontario in the heart of the Toronto Beaches, where Tammara Soma and I discussed her exciting idea for a “food system lab” to develop policy approaches that link food waste with sustainability, food security and Indigenous rights.

Before getting to our strolling conversation on this project, let me give you my career tip of the week, which comes from ten years of experience at the staff helm of the Toronto Food Policy Council. I always made time to talk at length with at least one student a week — which added up to about 500 great strolls over my decade on the job, and now totals about 1000 since I made the original commitment. I did that partly to “pay backward,” and thank the many people who made time to mentor me, and partly to make sure I stayed in tune with the new blood coming into the food movement, and to make use of the fresh, bold and excited ideas of youth as a lens to see the kinds of policy potential our mandate requires. I recommend this time management principle to anyone. Your time will be repaid many times over.

Back to the Beaches boardwalk, and to Tammara Soma, who won a prestigious Trudeau fellowship to do her PH D in planning on food waste issues in her birthplace, Indonesia. She’s used her fellowship, and additional funding from the Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation, to rally people behind her food system lab approach to food waste. Her request to me was to strengthen and encourage her resolve to think big and bold about food waste.

Thinking big and bold is essential on this topic because of the extraordinary take-up the food waste issue has enjoyed. Organizations responsible for food waste obviously assessed the public mood as too hot to allow them to sit on the issue and block its development – which is the standard response on food matters.

Instead, both governments and corporations adopted what is called “pre-emptive reform” – making enough noise and notion of motion to be thought of as responsive, while narrowing the issues down so that attention is focused on technical fixes the people in power can apply.

It has to be said that this approach has been quite successful; they’ve kept food waste from being discussed as a food system problem, and instead created a discourse in which consumer habits must share, and even own, most of the blame. Corporations will do their bit, but the consumers must do the heavy lifting by shopping and storing food more carefully.

Issue #1: Food labs need to reclaim food waste as a food system problem.

Not to let consumers off the hook when it comes to behaviors they should shoulder responsibility for, but we cannot begin to understand food waste unless it’s understood as a full-blown system issue. Consumer-related waste — the lettuce you bought but didn’t finish, and ended up tossing in the garbage; the carrot you didn’t buy because it was misshapen; the milk you didn’t buy because you took the best-before date to mean safe-before – are just the crowning insults to a very long list of wasteful practices embedded in popular culture, government regulations and subsidies, and corporate practices.

If we want to talk waste, and the abuse of resources that lead to environmental damage and hunger, the scandal goes far beyond much-ballyhooed statistics. It’s true: if food waste were a country, it would be the third biggest emitter of global warming gases in the world, after the US and China. It’s also true that Canada governments spend $31 billion to collect and landfill wasted food every year, while governments around the world spend over $500 billion dollars – more than enough to sponsor school meal and snack programs that could dramatically reduce childhood malnutrition.

Food waste is very photogenic. Food scattered around a landfill site is an attention-grabbing, if repulsive, photo-op. Oddly shaped veggies and fruit can be reimagined as cute and cuddly conversation pieces. A picture is worth a thousand words, but a meme that sticks in the brain is worth a thousand appeals to reason.

If we want to see food waste, we have to look beyond landfill sites.

We need pictures of livestock fed exclusively on grains raised on class 1 land, instead of pasture that grows well on less fertile lands; we need to see medical operations on typical North Americans and Europeans who eat twice as much meat as their nutritional needs call for; we need pictures of government subsidies that fund farmers to grow grains that feed livestock (and increasingly fuel cars), instead of grains, pulses and produce that nourish people. We need pictures of North America’s urban and suburban lawns, landscapes of conspicuous consumption grown on some of the most fertile land on the continent. We need pictures like those depicted in the movie Just Eat It, revealing piles of food destroyed because of faulty labels. We need pictures of old-style milk, beer and juice bottles that used to be reused multiple times, providing green re-use jobs in every region, so we remember they have been displaced by disposable plastics, which – to rub salt in the wound – governments subsidize by assigning the cost of recycling to taxpayers. We need pictures of toilets full of human waste (aka, digested food) that will be carried by water, the world’s most precious resource, and dumped into rivers, lakes and oceans, source of fisheries and drinking water, instead of composted and converted into Class 1 fertilizer. We need pictures of the size of government checks written for scientists and corporations that promise to increase food yields, and we need to compare those to pictures of the tiny checks written to scientists and companies working to increase food conservation.

We need, in short, pictures that depict an irrational food system which governments, by and large, legislate, subsidize or turn a blind eye to. Food waste needs to be understood as part of a larger pattern of resource abuse. If we need bad guys in the picture, it will not be hapless consumers, who’ve had the wool pulled over their eyes.

Issue #2: Also on the big picture front, “food waste” has to be renamed “wasted food,” because waste is a verb, not a noun.

Food comes from Nature, and Nature has no waste. There is nothing garbage about garbage until it is tossed into a garbage can and dumped in a garbage dump. Until it’s mixed up, dirtied and crushed by the garbage system, what we call garbage is a resource that has been put in the wrong place.

Our minds have been tricked into allowing that because we’ve been raised to think in terms of linear systems that put humans at the pinnacle, just as much as people in earlier centuries were raised to think in terms of a flat earth at the center of the universe. To get rid of garbage, we need to learn to think of and see circular systems – not supply chains that go from farm to fork but circles that go from soil to soil, ocean to ocean, and dust to dust.

The place where all food scraps have to go is to compost heaps that create conditioners that enrich the soil. But there’s no reason to do that recycling and re-use too quickly. We can wring other uses for it, sometimes as a resource for bio-fuel, a process that still leaves lots for soil creation, and sometimes as feed for livestock, and insects that can be fed to livestock and fish.

This is how cities can turn wasted food from a billion dollar cost to a billion dollar asset.

This also reveals the genius of Tammara Soma’s idea of linking good wasted food policy with good policy on Indigenous peoples, beginning, perhaps, with respect for the worldview of most Indigenous peoples, who saw life on the planet as circular creations, not as linear products, some of which became garbage after one use.

Issue #3: A good food lab relates ways of operationalizing remedies to wasted food.

That, not analysis or policy, is the 800-pound gorilla. If governments weren’t so intent on being part of the problem instead of part of the solution, fixing the problem would be as simple as rocket science, a trick we’ve mastered scores of times.

‘The difficult we can do right away,’ some companies like to brag. ‘The impossible takes a little longer.’

The wasted food version of that, I think, is ‘the complicated we can do right away, the complex takes a bit longer.’

Governments, with their strong departmentalized silos and weak multidisciplinary teams, are in the linear thinking business. Municipal governments are most amenable to changing their ways in this regard, I believe, which is one reason why we should focus on municipal solutions to wasted food.

The starting point might be following the medical principle of ‘first, do no harm.’ Governments should stop subsidizing and privileging waste. Instead of forcing taxpayers to pay for recycling of throwaway containers, make the corporations that chose to produce the disposables pay for the privilege. Almost immediately, that will favor local producers, who can handle heavier multiple use containers much more easily – as they did in the days when reusable milk containers were common because dairies were local.

As well, instead of picking up garbage for free and making people pay for composters, cities could pay for composters and teach people how to use them and even help people (such as seniors and people with disabilities) do the composting.

Civic litter departments should find a way to charge junk food companies for the container litter that their customers drop on public property such as streets and parks. Companies would not be charged if they provided compostable containers, which could be placed in special ‘garbage’ cans for compostables.

But here I’m getting into matters that Tamarra’s food lab needs to deal with. And I have a vested interest in helping that process to happen. As of the end of our stroll, I am a Special Advisor to the Food Systems Lab.