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Waste not, want not: the cost of throwing out perfectly good food

U of T to host food waste symposium on November 24

Trudeau Scholar Tammara Soma is one of the organizers of the food waste symposium at New College (photo by Dominic Ali)

Many kids have faced mothers who threatened punishment for not eating everything on their plates and wasting food. But, judging from the estimated $27 billion worth of food Canadians throw away each year, that tactic hasn’t worked.

Things may change with the upcoming food waste symposium taking place at the University of Toronto November 24, organized by Trudeau Foundation Scholar and PhD candidate Tammara Soma and Lauren Baker, a U of T course instructor and Toronto Food Policy Council member. 

More than 200 participants are expected to attend the mini-workshops on food waste hosted by Food not Bombs, Second Harvest and the City of Toronto Waste Management department. The event also includes a screening of the award-winning food waste documentary Just Eat It and a panel discussion featuring several experts working on food waste issues.

Writer Dominic Ali spoke with Soma to learn more about why Canadians  squander so much food, and how to reduce the waste.

Why is food waste such a significant issue right now?
When it comes to waste, there is the mantra of “out of sight, out of mind.” However, many landfill sites are near capacity and we cannot continue our throwaway mentality.

From an economic standpoint, Canadian households are burning $1,500 annually when they waste food. According to one study, a household might as well leave one bag of groceries outside of the door when they come back from grocery shopping since they will waste that amount of food in one week anyway.

Globally, reports from the FAO have estimated that we throw away 30 per cent to 50 per cent of the food that is produced for human consumption. The fact that significant hunger exists when large amounts of food are being thrown away is very disturbing. 

How is food waste related to food security?
Food waste is definitely tied to the issue of food security as global famines have occurred during periods of food surplus. In Canada, there has been an increase in food bank recipients this year (841,000 Canadians use food banks and are food insecure) while at the same time, perfectly good food is being sent to landfills.

When we talk about food waste, we are talking about systemic issues in our food systems that are tied to unequal power relations. 

What’s the biggest challenge facing cities like Toronto when it comes to food waste?
Most of our foods in Toronto are imported and agriculture uses approximately 70 per cent of the world’s water. Wasting food means wasting the labour and natural resources used to grow that food domestically and internationally. In addition, urban waste management is expensive and this will be reflected in our future tax contributions. 

As scholar Wayne Roberts argues, “it is odd that so much money can be wasted on garbage and so much environmental damage done by garbage, without anyone ranking it high as a hot public policy issue.”

What can one person do to prevent food waste? 
Reducing household food waste requires that people change their patterns of consumption while juggling everyday life and I am aware that this can be difficult. However, there are numerous resources out there to help individuals reuse leftovers, or understand food labelling and better food storage (www.lovefoodhatewaste.com).

The first step I took with my family of five was to be less picky and to cook smaller portions. For example, I noticed that I always cook too much oatmeal for breakfast, so the next time around I actually used a measuring cup. I also try my best to spruce up leftovers with spices/condiments instead of buying takeout. Bringing food containers also comes in handy when I go to restaurants. Witnessing waste pickers having to eat leftover food from the dumpsite was a wake-up call for me to reflect upon the ethical issues of wasting food.

(Find more information about the food waste symposium.) 

Dominic Ali writes about cities and urban partnerships for U of T News