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’.”

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

A Social Innovation Lab to Tackle Urban Food Waste

Reposted from: Huffington Post

By: Tammara Soma

Is it possible to imagine a food system without food waste? After all, waste is really in the eye of the beholder.

Hydroponic system in the backyard of a house.


In Canada, it is estimated that food waste costs $31 billion dollars annually while in a Hunger Count report, close to 900,000 Canadians (many of them children) require access tofood banks. Being Indigenous in Canada means that you are 28.2% more likely to be food insecure, this is also the case with being black (27.8%). When some people can afford to waste perfectly edible food while others go hungry, and when some businesses dump good food while Canadians up north struggle with food prices that are three times higher than their Canadian counterparts, it is clear that we have a food system that is broken and unjust. For those tackling food waste through dumpster diving, this act is more than an environmental and political statement; for many people, it is an act of survival.

As a resident of Toronto, an urban centre of 2.8 million residents and a city that prides itself on being the financial services capital of Canada, I was surprised to discover that the issue of food insecurity is quite high. In fact, Toronto has one of the highest rates of urban poverty in Canada. For example, one study found that anywhere between 10 to 13 percent of Toronto households suffer from food insecurity. That means approximately 364,000 households in Toronto are going hungry, which is over 6 times the number of people that could fit inside the Rogers Centre!

Toronto is also vulnerable to hunger. According to estimates by retailers, at any particular time, there are only three days worth of fresh food in the city.

Shockingly, even with the staggering number of food insecure households and vulnerability to hunger, organizations like Second Harvest are constantly on the move to rescue perfectly edible foods that would have otherwise been dumped. So far, over 8 million pounds of food have been rescued in the past 12 months by this organization alone. While folks like Second Harvest are doing their best to help, they cannot fight the food waste problem alone. The diversion of surplus food in urban areas cannot be our only solution to a systemic problem.

Studies have shown that urbanization is one of the drivers of food waste. This is because urbanization increases the logistic and complexities of food distribution and food gets wasted along the supply chain. Considering that over 80% of the Canadian population lives in urban areas, we need to dig in deeper to investigate the solutions for urban food waste.

So how can we prevent food waste and work towards a sustainable food system where Canadians and Torontonians in particular have access to wholesome nutritious and culturally appropriate food once and for all?

As a food system planner (i.e. an urban planner that takes food system considerations into planning sustainable cities) the answer to this big question lies in a systems approach.

We need to move beyond the same old stop-gap and band aid solutions to address food waste and understand our food system holistically. This is why I am excited to announce the upcoming launch of the Food Systems Lab which is sponsored by the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation.

Brainstorming with stakeholders across the food supply chain


The Food Systems Lab will hold its first session in the Fall of 2016 to determine policy options to address food waste and will be a year long initiative piloted in the City of Toronto. The Lab will be one of the first projects to use a social innovation labapproach to tackle the issue of food waste and food insecurity in Toronto. To come up with long-term solutions, the Lab will bring together a variety of stakeholders to develop a common understanding of the problem of food waste and then work together on innovative solutions through information collection, analysis, creative engagement, and prototype development. We also hope to collaborate with Indigenous communities to understand the systems knowledge of the first inhabitants of Toronto, the Indigenous elders and knowledge keepers.

Considering the scale of the problem and the growing urban population, it is about time that we invest in innovative solutions to address the issue of food waste. For Tkaronto ( Mohawk for “where there are trees standing in water”), this means potentially combining new methods such as the social innovation lab and integrating the long-standing wisdom of Indigenous food systems.