This article is based off research that was done during Impact Canada’s Food Waste Reduction Challenge. I led an all-star team: Kristina, Naila, Laura, Kimberly, Jessica, and Sophia! You can check out all our research and our solution to reduce food waste here.
We were all raised in Canada, being surrounded by restaurants and stocked grocery stores with beautifully organized shelves filled with all types of food throughout the year.
Many of our friends in Canada work in restaurants, hospitals, grocery stores, and retirement homes. From our friends we found out that perfectly good food gets thrown out all the time!
Surely, with all this food around us, people are not going hungry? Surely — we thought — if our society can afford to throw away food, people shouldn’t have to endure food insecurity, right?
However, the harsh truth is that we have many hungry people in Canada — 4.4 million, to be exact. Yet, we are throwing away 35.5 million tonnes of food in Canada each year while these 1 in 8 households in Canada are food insecure.
To battle the dual crises of food insecurity and food waste, let’s cover three main things our society needs to be aware of:
- How much food waste is happening, and why it is occurring.
- How many people endure food insecurity, and how it is impacting their lives.
- The environmental and economic toll of food waste.
Understanding Food Waste in Canada
Just How Much Food Is Canada Wasting?
Below are a few mind-blowing statistics from Second Harvest, which are not talked about nearly as much as they should be.
First off, our society needs to internalize that nearly 60 percent of food produced in Canada — amounting to 35.5 million metric tonnes — is lost or wasted annually.
Then, of that, 32 percent — equalling 11.2 million metric tonnes of lost food (equivalent of the weight of almost 95 CN Towers) — is avoidable and is edible food that could be redirected to support people in our communities.
Why is Canada Wasting so Much Food?
Food waste is a multifaceted problem that occurs at each step from the farm to your dinner plate. Although every point in the food chain — including: production, processing, food distribution, retail, households, HRI (hotels, restaurants, and institutions) — needs improvement, the largest contributors to avoidable food waste in Canada are the following:
- Households: 21%
- Processing: 20%
- Hotels, Restaurants, & Institutions: 13%
- Retail (grocery stores): 12%
Let’s start with households.
The largest portion of food waste in Canada comes from households — which means that consumers are responsible for this waste. However, 63% of this food could have been eaten (source).
Household waste is caused by storing food improperly, throwing out leftovers or food that has reached its best before date, and purchasing too much food. About two-thirds of food waste at home is caused by food spoilage (source). This is primarily due to throwing out foods that have reached their best-before date. The most wasted foods by weight at the household level are vegetables: 30%, fruit: 15%, and leftovers: 13% (source).
Additionally, most people don’t know that “best before” dates are only a guide for food quality, not food safety, which can lead to unnecessary food waste. An estimated 80% of Americans prematurely discard food due to this confusion (source). Consumers also often make inaccurate estimates of how many ingredients they will use during the week. The root causes of these behaviours are a lack of awareness and education. Consumers do not know enough about the food waste problem to properly meal plan, reduce overbuying, and — most importantly — avoid throwing out food that has reached its best-before date.
Processing of Food: 20% of avoidable food waste
There are two main issues with the processing of food. One is the fact that the grading system for food is deeply flawed. If a certain product doesn’t look “perfect” it will be thrown out.
Furthermore, there are several process inefficiencies due to machinery/equipment not being checked up on and maintained properly, wasting a lot of energy and money in the long run. With excruciatingly tight margins, food processing companies don’t have the budget to stay on top of these things, resulting in lots of small inefficiencies adding up over time.
Hotels, Restaurants, and Institutions: 13% of avoidable food waste
Hotels, restaurants, all-you-can-eat buffets, retirement homes, bakeries, and airlines all throw away enormous quantities of ready-to-eat food. Although this food is in perfect condition, it was not consumed by the intended consumer. So, the leftover food is thrown away oftentimes due to vendor agreements.
Vendor agreements are a contract by which two entities agree to an exchange of goods and services for compensation, for specific amounts and prices. The agreement also set conditions and details under which this exchange will take place. Vendor agreements between manufacturers and retailers can include a clause stating that excess products must be destroyed, and therefore cannot be donated.
Retail: 13% of avoidable food waste
Retail stores often cannot upgrade inventory systems with the latest technology which leads to inventory management errors such as a refrigerator doors that does not close all the way causing food to spoil pre-maturely.
Furthermore, some traditional food retail practices can unintentionally increase food waste. For example, many supermarkets have high cosmetic standards for fruit and vegetables, leading them to reject even marginally imperfect-looking food and have highly conservative “best-before” dates that leave consumers — who often misinterpret the true expiration date of the product — to buy more or throw out products sooner. In most cases, food items that are not sold and approaching their best before dates by up to 2 weeks are simply thrown out.
Enter Flashfood, an app that connects major grocery chains directly with consumers, offering them steep discounts (between 40–60%) on food items approaching their best before date, buy them at a discount and pick them up in store. By partnering with the nationwide grocery chain Loblaws, in 2019, they helped divert 4.6 million pounds of potential food waste from landfills, in the process feeding more than 110,000 families and allowing shoppers to collectively save more than $10M on groceries.
Why Is Food Waste A Problem?
Food is not cheap to produce, package, distribute, and market; thus, the total financial value of this potentially rescuable lost and wasted food is a staggering $49.46 billion — amounting to 3% of Canada’s GDP.
In 2018, 1 in 8 households in Canada were food insecure, amounting to 4.4 million people, including more than 1.2 million children living in food-insecure households.
Food insecurity takes a huge toll on people’s health and by consequence, the Canadian healthcare system. Simply put, adults and adolescents in food-insecure households are more likely to experience nutrient inadequacies.
In Canada, household related waste alone accounts for 5,800,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions and 304,640,000 tonnes of water usage per year as of 2019 (source). This environmental impact is the same as 10,601,816 cars on the road for one year — about half of the registered cars in Canada — and is the equivalent of 92,846 people’s drinking water over the same period (source).
What Is Food Insecurity?
There are three levels of severity with regards to food insecurity in Canada:
- Marginal food insecurity: Worrying about running out of food and/or have a limited food selection due to a lack of money for food.
- Moderate food insecurity: Compromising in quality and/or quantity of food due to a lack of money for food.
- Severe food insecurity: Missing meals, reduced food intake, and at the most extreme, going day(s) without food.
How Food Insecurity Impacts the Health of Canadians
Adults living in food-insecure households report poorer physical health and are more vulnerable to a wide range of chronic conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, arthritis, and back problems. Furthermore, they are also more likely to be diagnosed with multiple chronic conditions.
Although it might be intuitive to understand that food insecurity causes physical health complications, you may be surprised to find out that there is a particularly strong relationship between food insecurity and poor mental health. The risk of experiencing depression, anxiety disorder, mood disorders, or suicidal thoughts increases with the severity of food insecurity.
In particular, food insecurity leaves a mark on children’s well-being as experiencing food insecurity at an early age is associated with childhood mental health problems, such as hyperactivity and inattention. Moreover, experiences of hunger in childhood increase the risk of developing asthma, depression, and suicidal ideation in adolescence and early adulthood.
How Food Insecurity Impacts the Canadian Healthcare System
Healthcare costs are considerably greater for food-insecure households. Even after adjusting for other social determinants of health, such as education and income levels, the healthcare costs caused by a severely food insecure adult in Ontario are more than double that of a food secure adult.
Also, it should be noted that with about 100,000 more Canadians becoming food-insecure every year, there approximately 4.6 million people dealing with food insecurity as of 2021. That figure is likely higher due to the pandemic and its effect both on employment and food production and distribution.
What’s Currently Being Done
In the UK
Households waste 6.5 million tonnes of food every year, 4.5 million of which is edible. Household food waste is 70% of post-farm gate waste in the UK. The average family of four can save just over £60 per month by reducing their food waste.
Back in 2007, the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) started the Love Food Hate Waste (LFHW) campaign to help UK households tackle food waste. This campaign came after WRAP’s research on food waste throughout the UK supply chain.
From 2007 to 2012, avoidable household food waste in the UK has been cut by an impressive 21% from 5 million tonnes to 4 million tonnes. The decrease in food waste achieved represents £3.3 billion in consumer food purchases avoided and £85 million saved in tipping fees and landfill charges by local authorities.
Over five years, the Love Food Hate Waste food waste awareness campaign in the UK found that their “community approach [reduced household] food waste by 50%” (WRAP, 2014).
Ahead of the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 12.3 target — to halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses by 2030, to which Canada is also signatory — WRAP predicts that by 2025 they should be able to reduce household food waste by half compared to 2007.
According to the World Economic Forum, France is the world’s most food sustainable country, most recently passing legislation in 2016 requiring supermarkets to redistribute leftover food to charities as part of a set of proposals published in 2015 against food waste.
Back in 2015, city councillor Arash Derambarsh, launched a petition on change.org urging an end to food waste in France, arguing that poor and middle-income people struggle to get by on a daily basis, while supermarkets each waste an average of more than 20 kg of food every day. The petition demanded legislation to solve the issue and received more than 210,000 signatures.
It is common practice for stores to put bleach on their discarded food to make sure it is not recovered. This bill passed by the French Parliament in July 2015 makes it illegal for stores to destroy edible products. State inspectors will monitor this to ensure that products are destroyed only in cases of real food safety risk. Otherwise, stores may receive a fine equivalent to US$4,000.
At the consumer level, France seeks to offer “lifelong education about sustainable food,” addressing the food waste in school curricula beginning in primary school. What’s more, they plan to create a dedicated public agency to implement food waste policies across the entire supply chain.
Another recommendation offered by the French government are the opportunities to create jobs through food waste reduction. For example, socially oriented businesses that transform surplus food — making jam, soup, and other products — can generate jobs that facilitate the integration and employment of marginalized populations in part through employment contracts that are partially subsidized by the French government.
Finally, to emphasize cooperation, a financial mechanism encourages local waste management entities (generally municipalities) to use 1 percent of their revenues to fund cooperation and development projects that address waste pollution. A similar mechanism could be set up for food waste.
The most successful solutions partner with local communities and national retailers alike to achieve the greatest impact in changing both consumer behaviour and corporate policy.
Obstacles To Overcome
As with many other national issues, there are several hurdles when looking to enact policy changes, including scalability and implementation by the federal government. Many applications that exist today are working on a micro scale. However, they are not making a significant impact on Canada’s food-waste.
In 2015, Canada signed to the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Unfortunately, it was not until 2018 that Ontario deployed its Food and Organic Waste Policy Statement, which seeks to reduce food waste both commercially and industrially. Its goal is to reduce the food waste in these sectors by 50 to 70% by 2030.
How Can We Solve the Problem of Food Waste?
By consulting with executives from the Greater Vancouver Food Bank and the Arctic Food Bank, we heard from food-insecure populations in both urban and remote settings. They validated the necessity of food literacy education, as it enables food insecure populations to make healthier meals.
The food crisis stems from issues like the food grading system — which mandates that all food brought into grocery stores is in peak condition — vendor agreements, and insufficient consumer food education.
As a consumer, you can purchase ‘imperfect’ produce (for juicing and smoothies for example), read up on the difference between expiry dates and best-before dates, learn how to properly dispose of food waste, meal-plan, and even start composting food scraps in a garden if your municipality doesn’t have a compost program yet.
When it comes down to it, the root causes leading to food being thrown away prematurely come down to consumers and policies. So, similar to how youth catalyzed climate change action, food waste needs to have the same activism behind it to facilitate legislative change.
We envision a future where less food is wasted, where people are not going hungry.
It is time we deploy high-impact and wide-reaching solutions across the Canadian food supply chain, and what better way to achieve this than through the next generation who will lead us to a more sustainable future?
After researching the sheer extent of food waste in Canada, our team was driven to act. We submitted a tech-based solution for the Food Waste Reduction Challenge issued by the Government of Canada. We targeted food waste at the consumer level, aiming to reduce waste through food literacy and awareness. You can check out our solution and research here!