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: