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’.”

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:

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.