Food Systems Lab at the North American Workshop on Food Waste Reduction and Recovery

On February 28, the Food Systems Lab had a secret mission to complete at the North American Workshop on Food Waste Reduction and Recovery: audit the food waste from lunch. We succeeded.

The solid food waste that we found from plate scrapings at lunch. Photo by Tammara Soma.
The waste audit results. Most of the waste was actually liquids (tea, coffee, juice). We also didn’t weigh the food that was left behind on the buffet table, since we don’t know how much is saved, reused or donated.

Following our secret mission, we presented the results  of the waste audit and introduced the Food Systems Lab to more than 80 workshop participants from across North America. It was the last presentation of the day, and Tammara (with her boundless energy) filled the room with excitement and enthusiasm. Download the full presentation PDF.

Tammara Soma speaking to a room full of representatives from Canada, Mexico and the United States about the waste audit and Food Systems Lab. Photo by Belinda Li.


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:

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: