Let’s say that you decide to make granola. You drive to the store, buy the ingredients for $30 plus a 10-cent plastic bag, and spend an hour of your time (and oven electricity) preparing and baking it. Even though it’s delicious and perfectly fine as-is, you decide that it’s missing an ingredient and want to start over again. You toss the granola into the 10-cent plastic bag and into the landfill. How much did that cost in food waste?
You might think it cost $30 for the ingredients, plus however many resources it took to produce, harvest, process, package, transport, and sell the ingredients to you. But no, in the food value chain, the cost of waste is often calculated as just the landfill or disposal cost—like the 10 cents for that plastic bag. The rest isn’t measured.
Now imagine this on a global scale.
One-third of all food produced globally goes to waste. Food loss and waste represent nearly 60% of the food industry’s environmental footprint. If food waste and loss were a country, it would be the worst emitter of CO2 after China and the U.S. Food that goes to the landfill creates methane gas, which is 25 times more damaging to our beautiful planet than carbon dioxide.
This is exacerbated by disruptions in our food supply chain, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and its subsequent impact on the restaurant and food retail industry. Comparing April 2020 with April 2019, for example, Second Harvest received over double the amount of surplus food than the pre-pandemic period.
In honour of Earth Month 2021’s theme, Restore Our Earth, we are looking at the cost of food waste on our planet along every step of our supply chain and restorative actions to take in order to slow our impact on our climate crisis. Addressing the issue of food waste and loss through measurement and planning across all levels of the supply chain makes our system less vulnerable and more sustainable.
Food Loss in Production: Challenges and Solutions
Surplus food is a complex problem that starts on the farm (or field, ocean, or greenhouse).
Production food loss can be caused by anything from fluctuating market prices, demand, labour changes, or harvest issues to aesthetic criteria, where produce is graded based on looks. For example, if a tomato has a blemish or it isn’t the right variety, it may not leave the farm despite the time, cost, and energy that went into growing, harvesting, and handling it.
For one pound of feedlot beef, it takes 2,500 gallons of water, 12 pounds of grain, 25 pounds of soil, and the energy equivalent of one gallon of gas. All of that is wasted if that one pound of beef never even leaves the processor. Millions of tomatoes are grown in Canada every year and it is expected that hundreds of thousands of them won’t make it to the market. According to a research project for the WWF by Dr. Ayana Johnson, half of the fish caught for the U.S. and EU goes to waste.
The biggest challenge and solution for food loss at the production level is to optimize the harvest.
Recommendations to Curb Food Loss at the Production Level:
Find alternative, emerging markets for imperfect and less-than-grade-A foods, including retailers and food rescue programs
Work with buyers to move away from restrictive aesthetic criteria
Ensure food waste and loss measurement practices that consider causes of loss for specific commodities
Food Loss in Processing and Manufacturing: Challenges and Solutions
Manufacturers and processors turn raw, perishable foods into products. For example, they may take raw dairy, eggs, or meat, for example, and process and package it to be safe (and delicious) to consume. However, when supply chains are interrupted, as they were in COVID, manufacturers may end up with an overabundance of that perishable product. That’s exactly how Second Harvest ended up rescuing potatoes-turned-french fries and delivering them to communities in need across Canada.
According to ReFED, a national nonprofit dedicated to ending food loss and waste in the U.S., almost 90% of surplus food in processing is byproduct and production line waste. The key to their success is improving efficiencies.
Recommendations to Curb Food Loss at the Processing Level:
Find new uses and market for production use of edible byproducts and establish relationships with food rescue programs for surplus donations
Improve inefficiencies and avoidable waste/bycatch along production lines such as date coding and labeling
Encourage facilities to measure food loss within their operations and set reduction targets
Food Waste in Distribution and Retail: Challenges and Solutions
Food waste happens for many reasons at the distribution level. The product may not have been stored or shipped correctly or shipments may have been disrupted or delayed, which might trigger best-before date issues. Or, it could have been handled incorrectly and caused bruising, wilting, or rotting that either the distributor or retailer could reject.
Once the food reaches the retailer, such as a grocery store, food could be wasted because of stocking issues such as over- and under-stocking, food date labeling, or pricing issues. Or because of human error. Many foods require food-safe temperatures and if they’re not put into fridges or freezers fast enough, they could spoil.
Retailers have a lot of power over consumer buying behavior and connecting the supply chain. Even just how a product is visually presented could mean the difference between a purchase and a loss.
Recommendations to Curb Food Waste in Distribution and Retail:
Start measuring food waste and find out where it’s happening. Set goals to reduce
Educate employees to understand best-before labels for stocking and donation
Engage employees in redistribution models for surplus food donations
Food Waste at Home: Challenges and Solutions
After all of that, what a waste if the food finally makes it into our homes only to get tossed. What a shame. The average Canadian will spend $1,766 per household every year on avoidable food waste. That is food that was still good and safe to eat but looked wilted, bruised, or was opened a few days after the best-before date.
When did “when in doubt, throw it out” become a contributor to the global issue of food waste on our planet? What if “when in doubt” is a nod to our lack of education around best-before dates and expirations? If we all knew how bad food waste was for our beautiful planet, would we not think twice about throwing out perfectly good food?
Extra Readings and Resources to Reduce Food Waste at Home
2020 and 2021 thus far have taught us many things. Prepare for the worst. Stock up your pantry. Hunker down. Wash your hands, keep your distance and make your own meals. Because of this, our kitchen cabinets, cupboards and pantries are full of more canned and dried goods than we know what to do with—and, unfortunately, most of them only last one year past their expiry date.
In one survey of Canadians in March 2020, at the onset of the pandemic, 45% of respondents shopped for groceries that would last them between one and two weeks. Some 9% more said that they bought enough food to last more than 30 days.
It’s easy to push our canned goods, sauces, spices, jarred jams, chutneys and pickles, teas, soups, grains, flours and cereals to the back of our cupboards and forget about them until they’re ancient and ready for the landfill. It takes work and conscious effort to do the opposite—and avoid the cost (to our wallets but, more significantly, the planet) of unnecessary food waste.
Get reinspired by your pantry!
Here are tips and recipes ideas to help get you inspired to eat your way through your pantry.
How to Get Inspired By Your Pantry—and Curb Food Waste
Inspired Pantry Tip: Organize, Inventory and Purge
Knowing what you’re working with is the first step in curbing your food waste and finding new inspiration in your pantry ingredients. Dig around, pull everything out, get rid of (compost and recycle!) long-since-expired goods (use our blog post on everything you need to know about best-before dates as a guide). Consider what you have.
Is there a better way to store your canned and dried goods so that you canseethem (and actually use them)? Organize your cupboards and pantry in a way that works for you. If nothing else, doing an inventory will remind you of what you bought and should eat. But, it may even inspire you.
Inspired Pantry Tip: Up Your Cookbook and Recipe Game
Spend some time leafing through your favourite cookbooks or looking at blogs or websites for recipes. If you’re not finding inspiration or getting hungry from what you’re looking at, maybe you’re searching for recipes in the wrong places. A world of recipes is at your fingertips.
Foodgawker or Epicurious are great places to look up specific ingredients and find recipe ideas. Bon Appetit and NYT Cooking may inspire you—and they both have recipes for specific pantry ingredients. Pair your non-perishable goods, such as dried and canned items, with perishable goods to add extra nutritional value to your meals. For example, warmed-up canned butter beans taste delicious with a splash of olive oil (for extra fat and omegas), coarse salt, pepper and lemon zest (for vitamin C).
Brainstorming Recipe Ideas for Pantries Full of Beans
Speaking of beans, do you have canned or dried beans that need eating?
What about making homemade baked beans? Soak dried beans overnight and cook them all day on the weekend or if you’re working from home. Or, use up your canned tomatoes, beans, corn and spices in a batch of chili. Here’s an NYT Cooking post on 19 Great Chili Recipes for inspiration. Beans are also great on salads, as a traditional side with eggs and toast in the morning, or added to soups. If you have sausage, why not make a white bean, sausage and kale soup or a bean and smoky sausage stew?
Beans aside, every pantry ingredient has thousands of recipes featuring them. Who knows, you may even find that you enjoy trying new recipes and spending time cooking at home.
Inspired Pantry Tip: Plan and Shop Ahead
Planning ahead is the single most important thing that you can do to curb food waste while creating inspired meals based on what’s in your pantry.
In the restaurant industry, what is often overlooked is the fact that chefs must use what they have and buy only what they need. That is how a well-run kitchen functions. It is also the art of the pantry: using what you have and buying only what you need.
What we’ve seen today is that using up what’s in your pantry doesn’t have to be dull, boring or uninspired!
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. The reward was most often more delicious and nutritious than today’s frozen, pre-packaged meals. 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.
Eating foods in season is nutritious for you, too. When fruits and vegetables are picked fully ripened by the sun, they pack a flavour and nutrient punch. Foods that are in season offer your body exactly what you need. Thirst-quenching water, vitamins and minerals in the summer; hearty, warming and fatty in the winter.
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 refreshing or warming drink, 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.
The pandemic forced us all to adapt. Come together. Help each other. Support the local community. This is something that Atlantic Canadians already know so well. It’s what you do on the east coast of Canada. You help your own and adapt to work with your environment, not against it.
Community initiatives to feed vulnerable folks and those in need in Atlantic Canada have been forced to adapt to work with COVID-safety protocols and practice social distancing.
In Prince Edward Island, a local library opened a community fridge and essentials cabinet, both full of free items for those in need. There are drive-thru pickups of hot dinners for takeaway, brown bag lunches and healthy snacks, plus food hampers home deliveries operating in rural communities in Newfoundland and Labrador. Community freezers are running regularly in Nunatsiavut communities as well as in the Miawpukek First Nation, in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Today we have two inspirational stories of how Second Harvest supported Atlantic Canadians in Newfoundland and Labrador as they adapt to the pandemic to bring food to their community members who need it most.
A Small but Mighty Team Organizes Drive-thru Food Pickups and Home Deliveries
Eight volunteers, most of whom are seniors, run St. Patrick’s Parish Food Bank, a small rural operation in Newfoundland and Labrador. From the basement of a church, they serve food to families in need in the Burin Penisula as well as St. Lawrence, Lawn, Garnish, Frenchman’s Cove and Winterland.
St. Patrick’s typically serves 25 to 30 families per month and in the past had to rely on food and monetary donations from the local community to fulfill the need. Making connections to larger donors for food donations, and to Walmart Canada, whose grant helped them buy a cooler to store more fresh and perishable foods, enabled St. Patrick’s to build capacity and serve their families better.
And then the pandemic hit and their in-person services had to change. St. Patrick’s received government and community support and was able to shift gears to serve good, healthy food to both existing clientele and other vulnerable community members in a safe way.
“St. Patrick’s Food Bank has been extremely busy despite the pandemic,” says Jeannette Lundrigan, Food Bank Coordinator. Amazingly, this small crew coordinated home delivery of nearly 500 brown-bag lunches and more than 400 hot dinners, and set up a drive-thru which has provided everything from frozen food hampers, turkey and fresh veggie hampers and even $5,000 in grocery gift cards provided by The Sprott Foundation through Second Harvest.
“The most significant improvement has been the increased quality and quantity of food provided to our patrons, thanks to the generous support of charities like Second Harvest – we could not do it without you all,” says Lundrigan. “The positive responses from our patrons make it all worthwhile.”
The support St. Patrick’s gives to their community even extends to their fellow service providers: they also shared gift cards with a neighbouring food bank that was struggling. It is amazing what this handful of volunteers has accomplished during a time of global uncertainty. Lundrigan says it best:
“We might be small but we are mighty strong!”
75,000 Pounds of Food Arrives at the Mi’kmaq Community Just in Time
On the southern tip of the Island of Newfoundland in Conne River is the Miawpukek First Nation. We spoke with the Mi’kmaq community General Manager, Theresa O’Keefe, to understand how the pandemic impacted the way that they feed their community, which includes approximately 1,000 on-reserve members as well as those off-reserve.
Before the pandemic, the First Nation offered social support programs and employment services to the Mi’kmaq community, including seasonal employment programs for able-bodied folks. Some program initiatives included offering as-needed food vouchers and providing snacks, bread and monthly supper clubs to an elders’ club, student lunch and learn programs and cooking classes for youth.
When the pandemic hit, the First Nation adapted their programs to follow COVID-safety protocol—and got to work ensuring that they could continue to provide for the community.
“We faced concerns regarding the potential shortage of food due to interruptions to the supply chain,” Theresa O’Keefe said. “We get food delivered via ferry to the island, so securing food was a tremendous relief for our community.” She also explained that they struggled to get enough PPE and cleaning supplies at the onset of the pandemic. This too, thankfully, has been remedied.
They applied to Second Harvest for rescued food to distribute to 350 households in the community—and received over 75,000 pounds of food through the Surplus Food Rescue Program. They enlisted department staff and community volunteers to store and distribute food.
Funding for COVID food security helped them secured freezer reefers (container fridges), including one from their community commercial fishing program and an outside fishing company partner. This made it easier to receive and store frozen food for the harsh Atlantic Canadian winter.
“We have extra food stored so we can continue to support the needs of our most vulnerable groups,” O’Keefe said. “We also supported our local food centre in our area which services our First Nation membership off-reserve and other families, so our vulnerable families surrounding our community could benefit from extra food as well. This gave us an opportunity to support our extended family members and neighbours and increased our sense of wellbeing.”
When Newfoundland and Labrador closed all non-essential workplaces for six weeks, the community had to postpone seasonal programs, which affected income for many community members, as well as insurance benefits for others.
“Food from Second Harvest has eased the expenses of purchasing food by community members who have had to have extensions to their employment insurance benefits so money can be redirected to other household expenses,” O’Keefe explained. “The food is high quality and focused on starches and proteins, which are very much appreciated by families who would not normally have large quantities at hand.”
“Given the winter and Christmas season where families find themselves with extra expenses for gifts for their family and children and the need for winter clothing, having extra food eased the stress of having to purchase food. Money in the home can then be redirected to other household essentials.”
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.