Fixing Food Waste Starts at Home
While the statistics are alarming, families have more power to create change than we think.
While some food waste is just the collateral damage of having kids, there is so, so much more we can prevent or divert.
This morning as I watched 6-year old Little Grey Lamb lick the peanut butter and jam off his toast, I knew the fate of that bread: although I consume many kid leftovers, there was no way I’d put that slobbery mess in my mouth or in soup stock, and we’re choosy about what goes into our backyard compost. It was landfill-bound.
While some food waste is just the collateral damage of having kids, there is so, so much more we can prevent or divert. According to a 2019 report by Toronto-based food rescue organization Second Harvest, over half of Canada’s food is wasted every year, which is more than the global average of one third, and higher even than in the US, where between 30% and 40% of food is wasted. And 14% of that Canadian waste comes from households just like mine.
It’s tempting to close our eyes to what we put in our trash cans, but the facts are hard to ignore. Wasted food is responsible for 8% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Meanwhile, almost one in seven Canadians is food-insecure. That number goes up to one in five when there are children in the home.
Fixing food waste doesn’t automatically solve hunger, at home or abroad. But in lower-income countries, helping farmers avoid food loss and spoilage can make more food available to those who need it. In higher income countries, reducing food waste along the supply chain means retail costs can go down.
Addressing food waste feels overwhelming, because it is. It’s hugely complex, but I’m choosing to start in my kitchen and work my way out.
An ecocidal food system
The term “farm to table” is popular on restaurant menus and grocery store placards, but it can be hard to wrap our heads around the costs of that journey. Author and advocate Tristram Stuart said in a 2019 interview that “wasting a third of the world’s food supply represents a colossal amount of completely needless deforestation, carbon emissions, soil erosion, fresh water use and species extinction.”
Global emissions from wasted and lost food are around three times the amount produced by aviation. While agricultural practices, land use, and supply chains are the biggest GHG culprits, I’ve come to appreciate that any household scraps I can’t compost will soon be releasing methane in a landfill — without helping anyone’s garden grow.
The food system guzzles up our water as well, so wasted food means wasted water. The American National Resources Defense Council estimates that throwing out one hamburger wastes as much water as a 90-minute shower, and an egg uses the equivalent of an 11-minute shower. Some environmental costs of food production are inevitable, but food waste is by definition avoidable. These are unnecessary impacts.
While it’s impossible to create a one-size-fits-all solution to manage these impacts, Stuart has no problem coming up with one word to describe the food system: “Ecocidal.” It’s a decidedly glum term, but it contains a (very tiny) glimmer of hope. We got ourselves into this mess because our actions are powerful. We need to remember that power to effect change as we look for solutions.
Sweat the small stuff
It’s been difficult to focus on food waste over the course of the pandemic. When my childcare went from part-time to zero-time, it was a struggle to even make dinner, let alone make plans for those poblano peppers I purchased on a whim. But a recent article I wrote on global food waste reminded me of everything we already do in my family — and also that I’d better use my privilege to do more.
While many families are tossing less due to meal plans and less-frequent shopping trips, both were pre-pandemic normal for us. We have a backyard composter (OK, three) and garden boxes ready to receive their output. Our freezer is full of veggie scraps for “someday soup.” I pack leftovers for lunches, and make breadcrumbs from stale crusts. I scan the quick-sale section of No Frills, looking for discounts on soon-to-expire tins, and cereal in damaged boxes.
But I also lose track of mystery meals at the back of the fridge. We toss things based on expiration dates (which I know are woefully unregulated and misleading for consumers, but until a better system comes along, I often err on the side of caution). I lament liquified lettuce in the crisper. And the lamenting intensifies as I consider that Canada’s National Zero Waste Council says the amount of vegetables this country wastes every day is equivalent to 470,000 heads of lettuce.
I’m far from perfect, so I asked my savvy group of parent friends for their tips. Here’s a selection:
- “I freeze vegetable ends/wilted things in a big bag (add as they happen), and then throw them into stock when I boil bones from leftover carcasses.” — Janelle, Cochrane, AB
- “Old bread ends up in French onion soup or old fruit gets baked into breads.” — Stefani, Calgary, AB
- “It’s been my experience that just about anything can be turned into a muffin or a patty of some sort. Sweet, savoury, it doesn’t matter. Leftover fruit or veg from lunch boxes can be chopped or blended into smoothies.” — Kris, Australia
- “Cooking bigger meals with fewer ingredients really helps reduce the little bits of things that go off.” — Jessica, Calgary
- “One word: Tacos.” — Vanesa, Cochrane
La comida es sagrada
Vanesa’s one word struck me as important, so I asked her for more. Vanesa is originally from Mexico, where the mothers and grandmothers say “la comida es bendita” and “la comida es sagrada” (meaning “food is blessed” and “food is sacred”). Food is sacred and wasting it is akin to sin. Luckily, “all leftovers can be tacos.” Vanesa has made tacos for me, and I assure you this is a delicious solution.
I’ve gotten so lost in statistics on food recovery and tips to prevent loss, I’ve forgotten our relationship with food is a contract. In taking care of our bodies, we are obliged to also take care of our planet and community.
I want to be part of food rescue efforts in my community, so I reached out to a local non-profit, the Cochrane Food Connection. It turns out there is a tonne of work being done. Most grocery stores and restaurants are diverting waste by giving to food banks or community outreach programs, though a couple are not. It was disheartening to discover not everyone is on board, but I’m stoked there are people out there inviting companies to participate, even if they’re not always getting the answers they want.
I found out that a community pantry is being launched this month; I’m sure my kids would like to become volunteers (a.k.a. food rescue adventurers) if we can. I also learned some retailers are donating food they can’t sell to a program that will help young parents learn to cook for their families. News like this makes the tough truths of food waste go down a bit easier.
Eating our food before it goes bad won’t fix the food system, nor will it magically mean the end of hunger. But 63% of Canada’s household food waste is avoidable, so each bit we prevent puts less pressure on the planet. Ultimately, I want my children to know that preventing food waste isn’t only a set of habits we perform, but a sacred responsibility we uphold.
Print Issue: Spring/Summer 2021