Ensure healthy and food-secure communities during self-isolation, social distancing: SFU expert

Reposted from SFU News

Simon Fraser University’s Tammara Soma is a food systems-planning researcher. She tackles food issues from farm to table to dump and breaks down traditional silos to create communities through food. Her work also addresses problems, such as food waste and waste management in general, food education, food access, and farmland preservation.

Q: How can we maintain healthy food consumption during this time?

A: Urban populations generally have more access to a diversity of food options (restaurants, cafes, take-outs, etc.) and it’s easy to take all of this for granted. With the need for social distancing and many food outlets limiting services and hours, it is best to make sure you have enough food at home and to choose versatile, easy-to-cook options. In general, it is best to avoid regularly consuming ultra-processed food. A lot of fruits, vegetables and protein (both meat and plant-based) can be purchased frozen, and for the most part, are as good as fresh, as most of it is flash-frozen. They have the added benefit of potentially reducing food waste.

Q: Can you suggest food options for emergency preparedness?

A: Having a household food plan is a key part of planning for an emergency. You can maintain a stock of dry pulses, such as beans, lentils and chickpeas, which are tasty, affordable and nutritious. Canned goods such as salmon and tuna are versatile; if possible avoid those with high sodium content. Nut butters (peanut or almond) are also great as easy snacks. Plant-based milk packaged in UHT/tetra packs also have a long shelf life. B.C. has great options for locally produced and long-lasting fruits and produce; apples last a long time in or out of the fridge.

Q: How can we avoid food panic and vulnerabilities? And how do we boost food system resiliency in times of disruption?

A: People’s worries about continued access to food, which is a food security issue, have also surged. It is critical that we invest/protect local food infrastructure – both built infrastructure (food hubs, farms, processors, etc.) and natural infrastructure (land, watersheds, forests) – to ensure stable supply and maintain public confidence.  Also, we need to invest in people (farmers, farm labourers, grocery workers) who grow/cook/serve food for us. Educating people about the importance of local farms and the massive effort that goes into food production is important, as global disruptions such as the current pandemic may in some cases disrupt international supply chains.

Q: What is your view of the public’s tendency for panic shopping and its impact?

A: The general population’s rush to hoard or panic shop could be fueled by a heightened sense of vulnerability. However, whenever we see an increase in people facing layoffs or unemployment, it is critical that others don’t burden the food system by placing communities in need at greater risk. Not everyone has the financial resources or space to stock up on food. Vulnerabilities around income may push more people into poverty, precarious housing, and food insecurity. This is when emergency food services like food banks or charities will be inundated. While preparing for an emergency is important, hoarding food will impact many food charities, which rely not just on people’s donations, but also on supermarket donations of surplus foods to stock their warehouse shelves.

Q: What do you make of the craze for buying toilet paper?

A: Many global cultures around the world are not heavily reliant on toilet paper and depend on other cheaper and more sustainable alternatives. Most toilet paper is produced using virgin paper, contributing to deforestation and the degradation of boreal forests, as well as GHG emissions. Chemicals are used to bleach toilet paper, and a significant amount of water (an estimated 37 gallons to produce just one toilet roll.) Canadians could use the current health crisis as an opportunity to transition towards more sustainable and affordable options, such as bidets (including the handheld ones).

Exploring food assets in Vancouver

This past year, Food Systems Lab has been working on a project to map food assets in Vancouver using a community-based approach. In the first phase, we hosted a community charette in July to explore what Vancouverites see as food assets in their city and what food assets mean to them. Here are some photos from the charette. This spring, we will be sharing more results from this project, including a photo voice book and web map.

Can Playing Games Reduce Food Waste?

Food Systems Lab is excited to announce that we have published an open-access journal article titled
Food Waste Reduction: A Test of Three Consumer Awareness Interventions. This article presents findings from our research on household food waste reduction awareness campaigns in Toronto. We have some promising signs that gamification can be an effective means to help reduce food waste in homes!


Halving food waste by 2050 as per the Sustainable Development Goal 12.3 is key to securing a food system that is sustainable. One approach to reducing household food waste is through education campaigns. We recruited 501 households divided into three types of intervention groups and compared with a control group to better understand the efficacy of diverse education campaign approaches. Food waste interventions included a passive approach (handouts), a community engagement approach, and a gamification approach. We conducted waste audits, household surveys (pre- and post-intervention), and a focus group at the end of the campaign. The passive and gamification groups had similarly high levels of participation, while participation in the community group was very low. The passive group and the gamification group had higher self-reported awareness of food wasting after the campaign and lower food wastage than the control group. Waste audits found marginally significant differences between the game group and the control (p = 0.07) and no difference between the other campaign groups and the control group in edible food wasted. Frequent gamers were found to generate less edible food waste than infrequent gamers. We conclude that the evidence about the potential for gamification as an effective education change tool is promising and we recommend further study.

Food Systems Lab receives grant for social innovation on bioplastic packaging

Food Systems Lab is pleased to announce that we have received a grant from the Trans-Atlantic Platform Social Innovation Call for a new project titled Social Innovation Management for Bioplastics (SIMBIO). We will use a social innovation approach to address the environmental and social challenges of bioplastic packaging throughout its entire supply chain from production to end-of-life management in collaboration with researchers from Brazil, Poland, and the United Kingdom.

Bioplastic packaging made from bio-based polymers has a large potential impact on both food systems and waste management systems worldwide. As plastic pollution is a global problem, the solution needs to be developed with a global context and cannot be isolated to one region or country. This requires close collaboration of research team members on both sides of the Atlantic to work on a solution to bioplastics that is viable and scalable to multiple locales. We will engage stakeholders throughout the supply chain who influence and/or are impacted by the production, use, and end-of-life management of bioplastic packaging, including those who are normally excluded from design and decision-making processes across three continents.

Through this project that will take place over the next two years, we plan to explore the following research questions:

  • What are the social and environmental roles of bioplastic packaging in the global context of sustainable food production and consumption?
  • What is the current understanding of bioplastic packaging for food from the perspectives of consumers and businesses?
  • Under what circumstances is bioplastic packaging the best option for storing and transporting food?
  • What are alternative products with lower environmental footprints that can be used instead ofbioplastic packaging?
  • How does the resource extraction and industrial processing for producing bioplastic packagingaffect food security, the ecosystem, and the well-being of those impacted?
  • If the quantity of bioplastic packaging increases substantially, how will these products impact theformal and informal recycling, composting, and waste management sector?
  • If bioplastic packaging is the best option for certain scenarios, what are product design parameters,processes, policies, and supporting systems that need to be in place to manage a supply chain of these packaging materials that minimizes negative environmental and social impacts?

Building on our experience from running a food waste social innovation lab in Toronto, we will be using a similar methodology for this project, following a three workshop format to understand the problem on bioplastic packaging, design solutions, and prototype promising solutions. Summary reports and journal articles will be written as we progress through this research.

SFU Farm to Campus Initiative

Food Systems Lab is excited to announce the launch of the SFU Farm to Campus Initiative in partnership with Embark Sustainability and the SFU Sustainability Office.

For 10 weeks, participants of this initiative will receive a box of seasonal farm produce from a small farm in Delta. Help reduce food waste and support a more sustainable and just food system. The zucchinis offered by this farm are certified organic and delicious!

Bake it, broth it, buy what you need

A guest blog post from one of our student research assistants

Hello! My name is Lydia Ng and I am a third year undergraduate student studying a Neuroscience and Nutritional Sciences double major at the University of Toronto. I am originally from Vancouver, British Columbia and in Vancouver, composting is mandatory by law  for everyone. When I arrived in Toronto, I was surprised the lack of food waste prevention practice and food waste knowledge from my peers.

During my second year, I became involved with a start-up company, Feedback, who help reduce food waste from restaurants by offering dynamic pricing of their menu items during off-peak hours. It was great that I got to be part of something to help with the food waste problem in Canada. The importance and value of food has always been a major teaching growing up, so when I heard about the open research position for the Food Systems Lab, I jumped at the opportunity to apply. I was excited to be part of a team that was dedicated in food waste prevention within the community. As a research assistant in the Food System Lab, I helps the research team with tasks, such as data entry, workshop planning, and data analysis. I was also very interested in being part of the interactions with the community to hear about their own food waste prevention strategies.

One of my favourite recipes to prevent food waste is to make a broth using vegetable scraps or meat bones. I love how simple it is to make, and it helps me used parts of the food I would otherwise not normally eat. I am also a huge baker, so whenever I have some very ripe fruit, like bananas or apples, I would use them in my baking. A few examples include, banana bread, apple strudels or tarts, scones, or muffins.

My top three tips for reducing or preventing food waste include:

  1. Do Not Always Buy in Bulk. Everytime I go grocery shopping, I notice the retailers advertise specials like buy 4 for $5, or buy 2 get one free. Often as consumers get trapped into the idea that buy more is cheaper, however it not always the case, especially if food gets wasted in the end. Sometimes the 2 for $4 is a trick for you to buy more because in the fine print, it may say that the item is still $2 if you only buy one.
  2. Portion Control. Try to cook enough food for only that meal, maybe a bit extra for leftovers for the next day. If you are someone that tends to forget about leftovers or prefers not to eat the same meal multiple times, it is better to only cook enough food for that one particular meal. Sometimes less is better.
  3. Purchase Versatile Ingredients. For example, carrots, onion, and celery can be used for soups, pasta, or fried rice. When I want to try a new recipe, sometimes it requires an item that I normally do not purchase. During those times, I try to substitute those items with items that I already have on hand or ones I know I can use for other meals.

A New Grant and A New Toolkit

Food Systems Lab has been quietly working this spring on some new initiatives and we are thrilled to finally be able to share them with the world!

New Frontiers

Assistant Professor Tammara Soma (PI) has been awarded the SSHRC New Frontiers Grant for Our Home, Our Food, Our Resilience: A Citizen Science Approach to Food Asset Mapping and New Frontiers in Ecological Heritage Planning in Canada. This two-year project will involve extensive collaboration with researchers at Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia spanning fields of expertise including Ethnobiology and Archaeology, Forestry, Indigenous Governance, Biology, Information and Arts Technology, Social Work and Geography.

Food asset mapping is an emerging tool in planning and has been used to document available food infrastructures in cities for the purpose of achieving food security. However, food asset mapping has not included ecological and cultural assets important to food system resiliency. Further, what are considered “assets” may not reflect the lived experiences of marginalized communities. This study will apply a “citizen science” led community food asset mapping in three cities: Port Alberni, Terrace and Vancouver. The project includes a photovoice methodology representing diverse communities including Indigenous, racialized, and low-income communities.

Food Matters Action Kit

Looking for learning materials and project to tackle the issue of food waste? Look no further!

Food Systems Lab is delighted to announce the launch of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation’s Food Matters Action Kit with over 2 dozen activities to inspire youth to make a difference. With support from colleagues in the United States and Mexico, the Food Systems Lab team had the opportunity to contribute to the development of this youth action kit. We hope to spark a collective youth movement to prevent, reduce, recover food loss and waste in North American and beyond. Spread the word and join the youth movement!