Food insecurity, in which people lack secure access to nutritious food, affects many Canadians. In 2017-18, at least 4.4 million individuals or 12.7% of Canadians were food insecure. This is disproportionately worse in the North where household food insecurity is 16.9% in Yukon, 21.6% in the Northwest Territories and 57% in Nunavut. That was pre-pandemic.
Indigenous peoples in Canada’s remote North are particularly at risk. According to Food Secure Canada, Inuit, First Nations, Inuit and Métis folks across the North experience five to six times higher levels of food insecurity than the Canadian national average. People living in Nunavut have the highest documented rate of food insecurity among Indigenous populations in developed countries.
According to a report on Food Insecurity in Northern Canada, as of March 2019, it cost $422.07 per week on average to feed a healthy diet to a family of four in the North. This adds up to approximately $1,688 per month or about $20k per year. The price of nutritious food is too high for most families. This, of course, is exacerbated by increasing unemployment rates and the additional stress that the pandemic brings.
Some of the Government of Canada’s Emergency Food Security Fund of $200 million during the pandemic went to supporting food security organizations in the North. “This funding will support the efforts of food organizations in the North and Arctic who work every day to ensure families have food on their tables,” explained the Minister of Northern Affairs. “This funding, combined with our increased investments in Nutrition North Canada and the implementation of the Harvesters Support Grant, is ensuring our response to food insecurity is robust, comprehensive and complete so individuals, families and communities can be more food secure across the North.”
Unfortunately, until the logistical challenges and costs of transporting good, whole foods to the North decreases, the price of nutritious foods remains far too high for far too many.
The High Cost of Good Nutritious Food in Canada’s North
While food insecurity in the North is a major problem, it is a multifaceted one.
According to Food Secure Canada, “Northerners rely on a mix of traditional (wild) and market food, and both harvesting and food shipping costs are extremely high.” Traditional foods are foods grown, fished or harvested from the land and water, such as fish, game and wild plants. However, living off of the land is not a reality for some Northern community members for many reasons including socio-economic and environmental ones.
When it comes to shipping non-traditional foods, many remote Northern communities only receive grocery deliveries a few times a year—Nunavut included. In some instances, a head of fresh cabbage can cost $28 in the Arctic and sub-Arctic isolated communities. According to this Business Insider article, three bags of groceries cost USD $245 in Coral Harbour, Nunavut. Much of these grocery items were pre-packaged—the only apparent perishable (and nutritious) goods were milk, bananas and pre-cut pineapple in plastic.
For the most part, fresh produce can’t sustainably be grown in Canada’s remote North because of the endless winters and so food must be shipped in. Food from southern Canadian growers, for instance, is shipped North over long distances by trucks, planes, ships and helicopters. These supply chains are, of course, weather-dependent.
Delivering food to the North during a harsh winter or a blizzard, pandemic or otherwise, is difficult at best. This can lead to shortages and runs on the local grocery stores. If local community members can’t get to the store within a few days of a grocery delivery, there might be no bread or fruits and vegetables left on the shelves. Community members may have no choice but turn to less expensive, but less nutritious, pre-packaged goods—if they’re available.
Hope (and Good Food) Among Northern Community Members
Despite these challenges, many Northern community members and community-run organizations are working together to find holistic solutions that work for them. Some of these solutions and programs include local food banks, co-ops, soup kitchens and support and educational programs for traditional food hunting, fishing, gathering, farming, harvesting and gardening. Many of these programs empower and educate members to do what they can to live off of the land.
When shipments of fresh or frozen food are delivered to remote communities through various non-profits and programs, everyone truly benefits.
For example, in the winter of 2020 Second Harvest rescued nearly 6,000 pounds of frozen food (mostly fish) and shipped it approximately 2,000 km to the remote Northern community of Fort Smith in the Northwest Territories. The remote community had had a tough year. Through the Surplus Food Rescue Program in 2020, Second Harvest brought over 380,000 pounds of food into the territories.
Not only were they dealing with the pandemic, but the harsh winter meant that they couldn’t hunt or fish—and they were running out of food. This was “an answer to their prayers,” one community member told us.
Modern eating habits are a world apart from those of past generations.
We have apps on our phones to order delivery within the hour (or less) from hundreds of local restaurants. We can buy our groceries online and have them packed and delivered to our doorsteps. By the end of 2019, almost 16% of Canadian respondents said they were buying groceries online. We have tropical fruits, rare spices, local specialty ingredients and fresh vegetables delivered year-round anywhere from around the globe. We grocery shop often—some 26% of Canadians “micro-shop” by going to the grocery store two or three times a week.
Prior to COVID-19, 54% of Canadians reported eating out once a week or more. While half of us eat out for the enjoyment of it, 40% eat out for convenience, having no time to cook or not knowing how to.
The further back in time we go, of course, the bigger the difference between modern eating habits and those of past generations. Many of our grandparents and/or great (great) grandparents had fully stocked pantries and food cellars, for instance, with preservatives, canned and dried goods, root vegetables, cured and frozen meats.
They made meals from scratch because they had to. They didn’t have grocery stores online or around the corner. Premade meals and baked goods were made by neighbours and friends, not corporations. They swapped recipe cards and had well-used dog-eared cookbooks at hand in the kitchen.
Cooking took time, love and effort (and the reward was hopefully delicious and nutritious). Ingredients were made of whole foods straight from the garden, farmer, mill, butcher or monger—depending on the generation.
But despite how far we’ve come (or gone), there are some lessons that past generations can teach us about food preparation and preservation that are timeless and relevant today.
5 Lessons From Past Generations to Curb Your Modern Eating Habits
1. Harvest Your Own Food
Depending on where you live, you may be lucky enough to have a kitchen garden outside. If not, many herbs and lettuces, for example, can grow inside in a sunny window or on a patio. Perhaps there is even a community garden nearby that you can access. There is nothing more rewarding—and nutritious—than growing, harvesting and enjoying your own food.
Past generations grew much of their own food and ate seasonally. Many of them also harvested their own meat, eggs and fish by raising chickens and farm animals and hunting or fishing. Or, if they grew their own grains, for example, perhaps they could trade with their neighbours who had cows for milk or beef.
Knowing—and appreciating—where our food comes from is a huge step toward better and more sustainable modern eating habits.
2. Preserve Seasonal Freshness
Past generations cured, froze, smoked or dried meats. They canned, dried and jammed fruits. They pickled, dry-stored, roasted, canned and froze vegetables and dried herbs and grains. All of this preserved the seasonal freshness of the spring, summer and fall harvests year-round. This is still done today by some communities out of necessity but also for enjoyment and love for seasonality and the homesteading process.
If you grow your own tomatoes, for example, you’ll know how deliciously superior the flavour and nutritional value is to imported ones that are picked before they’re ripe so that they can last through shipment and storage on grocery shelves. Try roasting your cherry tomatoes and freezing them flat before putting them in a freezer bag to add to pasta in the winter. Look into canning or freezing them too—your future self will thank you.
3. Support Local Businesses and Farmers
Thankfully, some of the best qualities of the past have remained strong today. There are dozens of farmer’s markets, butchers, bakers, fishmongers, cheese makers, local millers and other food craftspeople to support in every city. The next time you go shopping, consider visiting a local farmer’s market or try to buy local, seasonal and/or organic produce.
If local fruits and vegetables are in season, why not buy a box of imperfect tomatoes from the farmer and make a batch of tomato sauce to freeze? Or do the same with cucumbers, garlic and dill and make pickles, or canned peaches or berry jams?
You may not have a kitchen garden, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t preserve freshness of local foods just like past generations did.
4. Spend Time Cooking
Sometimes, the ingredients make the meal. If you’re already growing and harvesting your own food or supporting local farmers and makers, you’ll want to honour and celebrate those foods properly. Freshly cut lettuce and herbs straight from your garden (or farmer’s market or local produce from the grocery store) just needs some olive oil, vinegar and salt and pepper to shine.
Give yourself the space and time to cook. Figure out what you need to make the experience enjoyable and make it happen. This may be finding inspiration in cookbooks, recipes online or watching how-to videos—or it could be decluttering your kitchen or just scheduling enough time after work to cook.
Listen to your favourite album, get an apron on, make yourself a drink or snack and have fun with it. If you want to eat at 7:30 PM, make sure that you’ve given yourself at least an hour or more to prep—and have all the necessary ingredients at hand.
Remove the obstacles and you may just find that you love to cook (or at least enjoy the reward). Practice makes perfect. Cooking for one isn’t an excuse either, because you can always cook for two: yourself for dinner tonight and for yourself for lunch or dinner another day.
5. Waste Not, Want Not
Speaking of leftovers, find ways to spruce them up. For example, if you’ve made pasta, consider eating it two days from now (so that you didn’t just have it—boring!) and make a side salad or saute vegetables to make it different. If you know that you’re not going to eat the leftovers immediately, freeze them instead.
Once you’ve grown your own fruits and vegetables or raised your own eggs—or spent more money on supporting local businesses—you’ll understand the importance of waste not, want not. It is a shame to let your hard-earned tomatoes rot on the vine. So eat them!
Consider the love and care that you give to something that you have grown and transfer that to ingredients that others have grown for you.
Modern Eating Habits: Convenience Versus Reward
Modern eating habits have stripped away all of the challenges that past generations faced. Convenience is so easy and tempting. It takes work to go against the grain and grow our own food, to support local or spend an afternoon canning, jamming and curing. It takes time and effort to make bread from scratch or roast vegetables to add to your homemade soup.
But think of the reward for you, your body and the planet. Past generations knew it well.
‘Tis the season for eating—and holiday food waste.
Unfortunately, food waste increases by 25% during the holiday season. Millions of pounds of seasonal foods such as turkey, gravy and mashed potatoes are prepared but go uneaten and eventually tossed. “When we throw away food, we’re also throwing away the land, water and energy used to produce that food,” said Pete Pearson, Director of Food Waste, WWF on holiday food waste.
Beyond our holiday overindulgence and food waste being an environmental issue, it’s also a social one.
One in seven Canadian homes was food insecure in May 2020 during the pandemic. In October 2020, the Canadian government doubled its support for the Emergency Food Security Fund added another $100 million to help feed communities. Toronto-based Daily Bread Food Bank reported in September 2020 that food bank visits in the city increased by ~25% since the beginning of the pandemic.
The holidays can be a challenging time for many, without the added stress and risk of the pandemic. Rather than actively contributing to holiday food waste this winter, consider a more mindful and less wasteful approach.
7 meal planning tips to reduce holiday food waste this season
One of the best ways to reduce holiday food waste is to shop and cook the right amount of food. This starts with a good plan. Write down the meals that you’re shopping for and what you would like to prepare. Don’t forget to leave room for your leftovers.
Make a grocery list from your plan.
2. Check cupboards and pantry for ingredients
Next, do a kitchen audit. Check your pantry, fridge, freezer and cupboards for what you already have. If something needs to be eaten soon, add it to the meal plan. Frozen goods don’t last forever and could be a useful addition to your holiday meal.
During your audit, you may discover that you already have most of the ingredients for your baking plans or that you already have great holiday sides and condiments, such as canned cranberries, dried beans or frozen peas.
Cross the ingredients off of your shopping list.
3. Create recipes that incorporate what you have
Get creative with using up the ingredients that you already have. If you’re making stuffing, why not use up frozen or stale bread—or turn them into bread crumbs to sprinkle on top? If you find frozen peas, why not make a side of mashed peas with mint? Eat those dried beans on the side of your ham.
Think of this as a feel-good project to reduce your holiday food waste (and reap the benefits later with delicious meals).
4. Prepare “just enough” to avoid holiday food waste
This year is a great year to curb the habit of preparing too much food and putting out spreads fit for kings and queens. Your guest list will likely just be you and your immediate family or loved ones, after all. Think about how many people you’re shopping and cooking for—and make just the right amount for everyone.
One of the best ways to reduce holiday food waste is to prepare just the right amount of food.
In the restaurant industry, plate waste is one of the leading out-of-home causes of food waste. More than $7 billion worth of food is wasted every year—~13% of all food loss and waste in Canada—from hotels, restaurants and institutions such as school cafeterias.
This happens when too much food is prepared, added to our plates and not taken home as leftovers.
5. Cook nose-to-tail and root-to-stem—compost the rest
When preparing your meals, always use the whole food. The technique of nose-to-tail and root-to-stem cooking means just that. If you bought a turkey or chicken, for example, use the bones to make broth or soup. Even your onion skins can be thrown into broths.
Use every part of your vegetables as well. Squashes, for instance, have delicious seeds full of fat, fibre and protein that can be roasted and added on top of salads.
When your ingredients are spent, compost them.
6. Plan for leftovers
If you know that you’re going to have unavoidable leftovers, plan them into your meals for the rest of the week. Organize turkey sandwiches one day and soup the next. Freeze any leftovers that you know you won’t eat right away and enjoy them another time. You may thank yourself on a cold day in January for freezing your homemade holiday turkey soup, for example.
7. Donate good, surplus foods—and support hunger relief
This brings us to our final point. As we said, food waste is an environmental problem. But it’s also a social one when it comes to rising hunger levels everywhere.
Find a local food bank to donate your good, surplus food. Volunteer your time to help with hunger relief in your community. Donate to help fund organizations that are tackling the problem every day, no matter the season.
It takes dedication and commitment to be a more sustainable and environmentally-friendly consumer. This is especially true when it comes to reducing our food waste and improving our grocery shopping habits.
Many of us shop for 2-for-1 deals but let the second item spoil because we never needed it in the first place.
How can we (as consumers) lessen our impact on the planet when it comes to food waste? Here are 7 steps to make your grocery shopping and eating habits more sustainable when it comes to reducing personal food waste.
Tackling food waste: 7 sustainable grocery shopping and eating habits
1. Do a quick kitchen audit
Before you go to the grocery store, take a good look in your fridge, freezer, pantry, cupboards and drawers. Any perishable items such as fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry and dairy should be eaten first. Write them down on a list. Even non-perishable goods and frozen foods don’t last forever. Perhaps you have some frozen meats and canned beans or soups that should be eaten soon.
Tip #1: While you’re doing an audit of the foods in your kitchen, throw out items that have clearly gone bad. This will not only give you a clean slate to work with but also remind you of how much you’re throwing away and show you what you’re not eating (and don’t need to buy more of).
Tip #2: Keep a running list of items such as high-use condiments or spices that need replacing. This way, you won’t impulse buy them when you don’t actually need more.
2. Research recipes with items that need to be eaten
Eating the items at the back of your cabinet or freezer shouldn’t be a chore, so don’t make it one. Find a great recipe (foodgawker is an excellent resource) and make a plan to celebrate the ingredients. For example, if you have squash and frozen broth that need eating, why not make a squash soup? Write down any extra ingredients that you may need—and double-check first that you don’t already have them.
3. Make a meal plan
By now, you should have a list of what food items you have, what needs to be eaten and a couple of recipes that you’d like to try along with ingredients that may be missing.
Depending on how many meals you plan to make at home per day and per week, make a little grid of breakfast, lunch and dinner for the week. Add in the recipes that feature foods that need to get eaten first and fill out your meal plan from there. Don’t forget that some meals could be made from leftovers and spruced up with a delicious salad, vegetables or soup.
Tip: Rotation in our daily and weekly meal plans is key to a well-balanced diet. Throw in a couple of your easy, staple recipes but research some new ones (and ingredients) too. This will ensure that you’re getting a wide variety of essential nutrients.
4. Write a missing items grocery list
Make a shopping list based on your meal plan and kitchen audit. Some items such as milk, bread and eggs, for example, may be staple items on your grocery list and can be added to every list.
5. Eat before you shop
It might sound silly, but part of establishing more sustainable grocery shopping and eating habits is to buy only what you need. Just like going to an all-you-can-eat buffet on an empty stomach, you’re more likely to over-consume at the grocery store if you’re hungry. Eat breakfast, lunch or a snack before you go and then stick to your list. If an item looks delicious or is on sale, before you buy it, consider what you could replace in your meal plan (and grocery list) first.
6. Stick to your meal plan but be flexible
Congratulate yourself for thinking sustainably about how you grocery shop and consume foods.
You’ve done all the hard work of doing a kitchen audit, writing out what needs to be eaten, recipes and missing ingredients and making a meal plan—so honour the time spent by sticking to it.
Of course, if your kale is yellowing or a bunch of herbs are browning, having the flexibility in your meal plan will help you reduce your food waste. Make a quick kale caesar salad on the side or throw some herbs into your roast to save them (and add flavour to a dish).
7. Save your leftovers
Work your leftovers into your meal plans if you can. If you know that you’re making lasagna, for example, with noodles, canned tomatoes and carrots that all needed to be eaten, there’s a good chance that you’ll have leftovers. Reheat it for lunch with a salad and a piece of fruit for lunch or make another dinner of it a couple of nights later (to give yourself a break from it).
Bonus step: Thank yourself for practicing sustainable shopping and eating habits
As you can see, it takes time and effort—and diligence—to shop and eat sustainably. But it pays off both for your health, wellness and personal finances and for the health of the planet.
The next time that you’re making a homecooked meal with food that might have otherwise gone to waste, take pride in the fact that you’re doing your part. Sometimes, it’s the little things that make a big difference (especially when it comes to our home).
#WasteWise: A note about water. And what you can do
Second Harvest has partnered with Loblaw’s to help Canadians become #WasteWise. Did you know that food loss and waste accounts for close to 60% of the food industry’s blue water? Please sign our Waste Wise Pledge
The first thing that you need to know is that best before dates are about quality, not safety. It quite literally means that the food was best, or in its finest form, before said date. After that date means that it’s beginning its slow decline in quality.
In Canada, only five types of food have true expiry dates: baby formula, meal replacements or supplement bars, meal supplement drinks, formulated liquid diets and foods used in low-energy diets (the last two both require a prescription). These foods should not be eaten past their expiry date.
This blog post talks about everything else. All of the forgotten canned beans and soups in the back of your cupboard or frozen and packaged pizzas stuck to the back of your freezer.
Canned goods: Last up to one year past the best before date
Dairy (and eggs): Lasts up to two weeks past the best before date
Poultry pieces: Last up to six months in the freezer
Meats (incl. beef, lamb, pork and whole poultry): Last up to one year in the freezer
Dry cereals: Last up to one year past the best before date
Packaged snacks (incl. popcorn, granola bars and bagged snacks): Last up to one year past the best before date
Prepared and frozen meals: Last up to one year past the best before date in the freezer
Unopened, shelf-stable condiments: Last up to one year past the best before date
Unopened drinks (incl. juice or coconut water): Last up to one year past the best before date
Your opened ketchup in the fridge is only safe to eat for up to about six months after the best before date—not six years. Your yellow mustard, one year. Mayonnaise, three months. Only your hot sauce will last an extra three to five years when stored in the fridge (Sriracha only two years).
3 Simple best before date checks for packaging and storage
1. What temperature was the food stored at?
Regardless of the best before date, perishable food items must be stored at the correct temperature. Two to four hours in a bad temperature zone (4-60 degrees celsius) is enough to spoil the food.
For example, if you accidentally left yogurt, milk or meat out of the fridge overnight, it sat in the “danger temperature zone” for too long and is not safe to eat.
2. How does the packaging look, feel and smell?
Check canned goods and food packaging for bulging, tears, rips, water damage or signs of insects. Look for mould, foul smells or discolouration. All of these may be signs that the food has gone bad and is not safe to eat, regardless of what the best before date says.
One exception to the rule, however, comes to mind with hard cheeses and mould. If there’s a little mould on one corner but the packaging wasn’t damaged and it long before the best before date, it’s probably safe to cut it off and eat the rest. This does not apply to soft cheeses, however.
Use your senses and instinct.
3. Was the food frozen properly and how is the packaging?
When meats, fruits and vegetables are safely stored and frozen at the proper temperature (at or below -18 degrees celsius), they can usually be consumed between six months to one year later regardless of the best before date and depending on the food. (See the poultry and meats sections in the list above.)
If the frozen items have freezer burn or icicles formed on them—or if the packaging is ripped—they may not be safe to eat.
Use your senses and instinct, along with this as a general guideline, to help you lessen your food waste impact and make the most of your groceries.
Why is understanding the best before date important?
Too much food goes to waste because of a lack of awareness and education. Consumers throw out or avoid purchasing good food because it was too close to the best before date. Grocers dump milk and dairy products (that we now know are good for another two weeks!) for this very same reason.
But if we all made the commitment to understanding best before dates, think of the food that we could divert from landfills.
Second Harvest has free e-learning modules for you to try, including training on food date labels, like best before and expiry dates. Visit training.secondharvest.ca to create your free account and get started!