Food Systems Lab featured in the Globe and Mail

Reposted from the Globe and Mail

From trash to table: Why ‘Band-Aid’ solutions aren’t enough to fight food waste

Underripe tomatoes. Misshapen carrots. Canadians throw out billions of dollars of food every year. As Ann Hui reports, one Vancouver kitchen is taking a stand, but a major shift in thinking across all levels of the food system is needed to fix the problem

The carrot had one top but two roots.

Normally, such a thing would never wind up on grocery shelves, let alone a commercial kitchen. At best, a “forked” carrot might be trucked to a farm somewhere and used as animal feed. At worst, it would wind up in a landfill to decompose.

But last week in her kitchen near downtown Vancouver, as Chef Karen Barnaby turned the vegetable over in her hands, she only saw potential.

“If you think about all the time that went into making this carrot, getting it right here, into my hand …” she said. She set the gnarled root down on her cutting board to dice.

“From the seed, to the people who planted it and harvested it – to have someone say ‘Oh no, sorry, that’s a two-pronged carrot, I don’t want to use it?'” Her voice trailed off, a bewildered look on her face.

On that day and most days in her kitchen of late, Ms. Barnaby’s focus has been on turning similarly unloved vegetables into soup. Specifically, tomato soup.

For the past few months in her role as a chef working with the Greater Vancouver Food Bank (GVFB), she’s been salvaging tomatoes and other donated ingredients directly from farmers and suppliers – food that would otherwise wind up in landfills. Overripe tomatoes with skin that stretched and split when squeezed. Tomatoes with bruises on them. Pale, anemic-looking ones not likely to ripen. These ingredients will make up her soup.

In the food world, these are sometimes referred to as “below seconds” – still safe and edible, but unacceptable to retailers. In order to understand the scope of what was available, Chef Barnaby’s partner on the project, Alexa Pitoulis, went straight to the packing plant lines, where she stood over workers’ shoulders, watching as they sorted. Whenever a worker would pluck a bunch of tomatoes to discard, Ms. Pitoulis would lean in to see if they were still usable. Often, the answer was yes.

What she witnessed at the packing plants is part of a much larger problem that affects every segment of the food industry. An estimated $31-billion worth of food – mostly fruit, vegetables and meat – is needlessly thrown out in Canada every year. Globally, about one-third of all food produced goes to waste. And it happens at every level of the food system – the result of everything from inefficient agricultural practices, to retailers’ demand for cosmetically “perfect” produce, to consumers who buy in bulk without regard for necessity.

Wasted food has major environmental repercussions. Producing food only to have it wind up in landfill means already limited resources such as land, water and fertilizer have been squandered. And as that food decomposes, it releases methane, a greenhouse gas – about 3.3-billion tonnes of it each year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

As a result, waste has emerged as a cause célèbre in recent years for the food world. Last year, France passed a law banning retailers from throwing out still-edible products. Celebrity chefs introduced food waste “pop-up” restaurants. Vancouver launched its “Love Food Hate Waste” consumer awareness campaign. And neighbours banded together to set up “community refrigerators” to share leftovers.

But experts say that well-meaning, smaller and local initiatives are little defence against an ever-growing and complicated problem. Some of the initiatives – especially those aimed at just one level in the supply chain – can cause further problems. For example, retailers suddenly diverting large quantities of perishable products to charities that aren’t equipped to handle them can leave those charitable groups responsible for their disposal.

“What we’re doing is basically putting little Band-Aid solutions in bits and pieces everywhere,” said Tammara Soma, the lead researcher at the University of Toronto’s Food Systems Lab. “What we need are systemic changes,” she said. “That’s why they’re so difficult to do. Because they require sacrifice.”

About four years ago, the Vancouver food bank had too many bananas.

On a single day, the GVFB received 9,000 kilograms of them in a donation. They knew that, using their usual methods, they would only be able to give out about half of those before they began to brown.

Desperate to avoid waste, the food bank’s CEO Aart Schuurman Hess reached out to local businesses to see if they might be able to help. One stepped up to offer to turn the fruit into baked goods.

The result? “One week we gave out bananas, and the next week we gave out banana bread,” he said.

That experience planted the potential for other projects in his mind.

Through the food bank, he launched the Surplus Food Processing pilot project and tapped Ms. Barnaby, a veteran Vancouver chef with dozens of years of restaurant experience. They chose to focus on tomatoes, which they considered the most versatile of the most commonly wasted foods in the Vancouver area (a list that also included cucumbers, squash, and oranges). The first product they would attempt would be tomato soup.

At first, Ms. Barnaby found the idea of surrendering control over ingredients unnerving – especially using produce of unpredictable levels of ripeness or variety. “Chefs,” she said. “We’re all about consistency.”

But as she started working, she quickly realized her fears were overblown. Having different varieties of ripeness produced the best soup. But even the batches made out of entirely under-ripe ones weren’t bad. As the project scales up, the chef said, she will put in place a “triage” system to ensure a variety of tomatoes are available at all times.

Seeds were another happy surprise for Ms. Barnaby. Most soup recipes use canned tomatoes, with the skin removed and, often, the seeds too, since they can sometimes add bitterness. But Ms. Barnaby wanted to use the entire tomato. So she was pleased to find the seeds (which contain pectin, the same starch in apples and citrus rinds) helped to thicken the soup, preventing it from separating and giving it a luscious, velvety texture.

Since beginning the recipe development process in August, Ms. Barnaby has brought many versions of the soup to taste testers – one with zucchini in it (“testers thought the seeds were ‘weird'”), another with kale (“but where would we get the kale?”), and a soup with chickpeas (“too complicated”). Once the recipe is finalized, they will be able to take steps towards selling the soup.

The entire project, Ms. Barnaby said, has felt like solving a puzzle – figuring out a new way of doing things. “I like the idea of using stuff that people turn up their noses at,” she said. “I love it.”

But the reality is that most consumers don’t approach food in the same way. Most still prefer straight carrots and round, red tomatoes. And because of this, so do retailers.

In recent years, retailers like Loblaws have made moves to address this, including offering for sale “ugly” fruits and vegetables. Loblaws has also undertaken studies to scrutinize its own processes, looking for ways to reduce or divert waste. Last year, the company diverted 47 million kilograms of organic waste, up from 43 million the year before.

But just targeting one part of the food chain fails to take into account the complexity of the whole, said Ms. Soma.

“If a retailer tells a farmer in Kenya they’re not going to accept their green beans because they’re not long enough, or too curvy – that’s beyond us consumers just eating ugly fruits or vegetables,” she said.

A whole range of problems at every level of the food chain contribute to waste: Incorrect or inefficient planting or harvesting at the farm. Inappropriate storage or packaging at the processing plant. Restaurants that overserve with huge portions. Retailers that encourage bulk-buying.

“Basically, the more you buy, the less you have to pay,” she said. “So people buy more.”

Further complicating matters is lack of good data. About 47 per cent of food waste in Canada occurs at the household level, according to a 2014 report from Value Chain Management International. About 20 per cent is wasted at the processing level, while another 10 per cent is wasted at each the farm and retail levels. Transportation, restaurants and hotels make up the remainder.

But Ms. Soma said that these figures should be taken with a grain of salt. Household data are available through municipalities, while food industry data are submitted voluntarily and may be incomplete. And, in the case of the VCMI report, the data do not include institutions like hospitals and schools.

In an ideal world, she said, all of these layers – producers, processors, suppliers and retailers – would work together to prevent waste from happening in the first place. Diversion efforts, as the VCMI report states, are “positive steps; however, they produce considerably fewer financial and environmental benefits than if food waste was prevented in the first place.”

One way to do that, said Ms. Soma, would be for producers and retailers to work together to reassess prices.

Because food is cheap, she said, people treat it as disposable. “When we change food prices, people will start to see the value of their food. People will think, ‘Oh, my food is worth more. I can’t waste more.'”

This could have a ripple effect across all levels of the food system, forcing producers to rethink what and how they grow, and consumers to rethink what they buy.

Still, she acknowledged such changes would involve major shifts in thinking, and efforts way beyond the “Band-Aid” solutions seen so far.

“This would require a whole change to people’s consumption,” she said. “Sacrificing their 24/7 convenience of getting whatever they want, and however much they want.”

After Chef Barnaby finished cutting up the carrots, she emptied the colander she had filled with diced carrots, onion and celery into a giant pot filled with blended tomatoes. She placed the pot on a burner, watching as the colour deepened from a pale salmon into burnt orange.

In less than an hour, she had converted 10 kilograms of “below seconds” tomatoes, 10 onions, 15 carrots and a whole head of celery – all of which would have wound up in landfills – into a giant pot of bubbling soup.

About 16 kg. of waste had been reduced to about 1 kg. worth of food scraps and several litres of soup.

The food bank hopes that one day, the soup will just be one of a “suite of food products” they offer commercially to institutions, generating revenue that can be funneled back into its programs. Also, through partnering up with local organizations, it hopes to provide employment and training in kitchen jobs to economically marginalized groups. Partnerships with other charitable groups like Potluck Catering in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside will take care of production and distribution of the soup.

These latter partnerships are important, in large part because of the misconceptions surrounding the relationship between food waste and food security. The most commonly cited statistic, used in campaigns around the world, is that by diverting global waste by half, we could feed an extra one billion people around the world – a statistic that experts call misleading.

“I think we should reduce food waste,” said Evan Fraser, director of the University of Guelph’s Arrell Food Institute. “But let’s not fool ourselves. That’s not going to have any impact on reducing food insecurity in Canada.”

Food security – meaning, an individual’s access to affordable, nutritious food – is determined by factors such as income and geography, he explained. “It has nothing to do with the availability of food, or whether there’s food around. It has everything to do with the ability of people to access food,” he said.

“If we reduce food waste, we can feed an extra billion people. Theoretically, yeah, that’s true. But the question is: How do we do that? I don’t think there’s an answer to how.”

Others, like the GVFB, also take issue with the fact that these statements perpetuate the idea that food waste – especially unhealthy food – can simply be diverted to the poor. (The GVFB has also been outspoken against a proposal by the National Zero Waste Council to put in place federal tax incentives for supermarkets that divert edible waste to charities. They argue this would force on food banks the kind of food they don’t want – unhealthy, highly-processed products.)

“We’re acknowledging that neither of those issues [food waste or food insecurity] are that easy. They’re very complex,” said Ms. Pitoulis. “But we’re trying to look at this and say, ‘Is there a different way? Is there a different conversation we could be having to get people thinking a bit more critically about those two issues, and also more systemically?'”

With the soup simmering on the stove, Ms. Barnaby brainstormed the ideas she had for the foods she could tackle next. Tomato sauce was the most obvious next step. She had ideas for squash too.

“I could make an excellent soup from that.”

As she spoke, she rummaged in the pile of food scraps in front of her. From beneath the tangle of tomato stems, vegetable skins and stickers, she had found a little piece of carrot that was still good to eat.

She held it between her fingers for just a moment. Then she popped it into her mouth.

Workshop 3 Summary

We took a summer break, and now we’re back with a summary of our third workshop.

Our pilot year has come to an end, but it’s just new beginnings for many initiatives that have come out of our lab process:

●  Circular food curriculum pilot (under the Our Food Our Future theme) with a class at Hawthorne School that will include: vermicomposting workshop, food waste campaign at school and letter campaign to local politicians.
●  Proposal to the Weston Foundation for funding to test different food waste awareness campaign strategies in Toronto
●  Ongoing participation in the steering committee Ontario Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Food and Organic Waste Framework
●  Creating an open source guide to running a Food Systems Lab or similar process.
●  Ongoing participation in the National Food Policy consultation for Canada
●  Contributing to Food Secure Canada’s policy briefing note on food waste
●  Presenting findings at the Association of European Schools of Planning conference, Coventry U.K
●  Contributing a food waste policy commentary for the Canadian Association of Food Studies Special Issue on National Food Policy (October 2017)
●  Part of the advisory committee for LyoFresh Technology, one of the solutions pitched under the theme “Technology for Change”
●  Part of the advisory committee for “Brew Growth” to pilot coffee ground to community garden initiative across the GTA
●  Steering Committee of the first Feeding 5000 event in Toronto, utilizing what would have been wasted food to feed 5000 people (part of the international FeedBack campaign). October 8th 2017
●  Part of an expert panel for the CBC Radio Ideas program “Feeding the Future” October 27th 2017

We’re at A Food Policy for Canada Summit!

A Food Policy for Canada: Let's build it together


Our own Tammara Soma is representing the Food Systems Lab at the Food Policy for Canada Summit in Ottawa June 22 to 23. June has been quite the adventure, having completed our third workshop and the Closing the Food Loop hackathon this month. In the midst of all of that, we also wrote a discussion paper on policy considerations for food waste reduction based on the findings from our research and workshops.

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’.”