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Food Waste

One third of all food produced is lost or wasted.

This statistic is alarming, especially when we reflect on the number of people that go without enough food each day. Not only that, but the environmental footprint of wasted food is significant when you consider the amount of natural resources, labour, infrastructure and logistics that are dedicated to producing, processing, distributing, and commercializing food.

Food waste is a global issue that is deeply intertwined with other challenges we face including climate change and hunger. For instance, it was estimated that about 821 million people in the world were undernourished in 2018, while more than enough food was produced to feed everyone on the planet. Eliminating food waste alone will not eradicate hunger but, along with improved food distribution and global access to food, it could be part of the solution.

The Sustainable Development Goals are a means to align global efforts to coherently design policies, initiatives, and actions to address complex problems such as food waste and hunger. Target 12.3 of the SDGs aims to halve household food waste by 2030. Realizing this goal requires interventions along our food supply chains to improve the quality of food that reaches our plates, and adaptations within the household to improve food storage and food waste behaviours.

Food waste and loss happens at every stage along the food supply chain, from farm to fork to fridge.

Food waste refers to the decrease in the quantity or quality of food resulting from decisions and actions by retailers, food service providers and consumers (SOFA, 2019).

Food loss is the decrease in the quantity or quality of food resulting from decisions and actions by food suppliers in the chain, excluding retailers, food service providers and consumers (SOFA,2019).

8 Ways Restaurants are Fighting Food Waste

Restaurants and other foodservice operations can get a pretty bad rap for food waste. Having worked in the industry for years, I can tell you it isn’t mal intended; in fact it’s often the result of trying to do the right thing!

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Insight on your Food Waste Questions

What does avoidable food waste mean?

Avoidable food waste is disposed food that could have been consumed. Examples of avoidable food waste include produce from your fridge that went bad, an unfinished meal at a restaurant or food that is thrown out to create more space in your kitchen.

In a recent study published by Second Harvest, it was found that in Canada 32% or 11.2 million tons of food wasted or lost could have been avoided and redirected to feed communities.

Unavoidable food waste includes the parts of food that cannot be consumed, such as eggshells and orange peels. This unavoidable food waste is often discarded during food processing or preparation steps. Unavoidable food waste is primarily made of the inedible parts of food that can be put in household compost bins or sent to municipal composting facilities to contribute to a circular economy of organic waste.

Why is there so much food waste and loss?

Food loss and waste happens all along the food supply chain. Food can be lost before it is ever harvested, like when a producer deems produce not profitable enough to pick because of market prices or disruptions. This was witnessed across the world at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic when some farmers had no choice but to plow under vegetables ready for harvest and donate what they could to food banks. At the beginning of the pandemic, those working along the agri-food supply chain were forced to pivot as demands for food shifted away from restaurants to largely at-home consumption where the logistics of the supply chains and the types of products can differ greatly.

Aside from the pandemic, food loss and waste in the supply chain can occur due to aesthetic issues, e.g., if foods’ appearance doesn’t fit retail standards or pressing food safety concerns, e.g., if a cold chain is broken or does not exist. Food loss can also happen during transportation of highly perishable, temperature sensitive foods, such as meat and dairy products.

At the retail stage of food supply chains, food often needs to be sold before its best before date or the occasion it was made for (e.g. Christmas cookies) it is discarded.

At home, food is wasted for many different reasons, one in particular is that food isn’t consumed before it’s best-before date.

The average Canadian households wastes approximately $18 worth of food that could have been eaten each week, which is equivalent to 3366 calories worth of food energy. All that wasted food adds up to about $1600 per year per household, and that cost does not often include its environmental impact such as the greenhouse gases emitted to produce food that never nourished anyone.

What does a date label (use-by, best-by, or sell-by) mean?

Use-by, best-by, and sell-by labels differ in what they aim to communicate, and understanding each can aid in reducing retail and consumer-level food waste.

Used-by labels are often on highly perishable products such as dairy and meat products that suggest when the safety and quality of the food may be compromised and may not be suitable for consumption after the indicated time has elapsed. Best-by labels reflect peak quality, e.g., ideal texture, flavour and maximum nutritional content, but it is not an indicator of lack of food safety. Sell-by labels are directed towards retailers to indicate when food should be sold by in a retail store. Products past their sell-by dates are sometimes still sold, but often at a discounted rate.

Read Dr. Maria Corradini’s recent article on transitioning from open labeling to real-time shelf-life measurements

Research Insight

Is donating food waste a solution to food insecurity?

Redirecting unused food to those that need nourishment could be part of the solution to addressing food insecurity, but food donations alone cannot mitigate food insecurity in the long-term. Researchers from the University of Guelph findings emphasize that while food that would have otherwise been wasted that is then rescued and given to food banks can alleviate hunger, it is a short-term and partial response to food insecurity and does not address the systematic challenges that cause food insecurity.

Using rescued food to feed those that are experiencing food insecurity can also create stigma around the quality of food, especially when it is being called food waste.

As a result, the authors suggest for improved policy and regulations to first prevent food waste, followed by taking steps to use food waste to feed everyone.

Reference: Shannon Millar, Kate Parizeau & Evan D. G. Fraser (2020) The Limitations of Using Wasted Food to “Feed Hungry People”, Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition, 15:4, 574-584, DOI: 10.1080/19320248.2020.1730292

Do people with healthier diets waste more or less food?

There is a growing body of literature that examines the connection between diet type and household food waste.

While researchers didn’t find an association between diet quality and daily food waste, they did find that the quality of parents’ diets was related to how much fruit and vegetable waste, both avoidable and unavoidable, they generated. The authors suggest that households who prioritize healthy eating might be purchasing more fruits and vegetables to maintain healthy diets, but do not always manage to actually eat everything they purchase.

The authors recommend that further exploration is needed to develop strategies that can guide households in making healthy diet choices, while also reducing their food waste.

Reference: Carroll, N., Wallace, A., Jewell, K. et al. (2020). Association between diet quality and food waste in Canadian families: a cross-sectional study. Nutrition Journal, 19:54 https://doi.org/10.1186/s12937-020-00571-7

Why is the way we think about food waste important?

This study looked at our relationship with food, and when we stop viewing it as delicious fuel, and instead start thinking of it as waste.

The authors shared how the systems we’ve created to ensure we don’t eat unsafe food allows most of us to not have to decide for ourselves when the food is no longer safe. Instead, we depend on best before dates, and the cold chain systems of food processors and retailers to keep the food safe.

When does food cross the line into waste? We might just assume when it is no longer safe to eat, but this also happens when it doesn’t meet our aesthetic standards (“ugly fruit” as an example), or when too much comes on the market at once.

But the authors also found that while our views of food’s condition can condemn it as waste, others are able to restore waste as food. This might happen through processing “ugly” produce. Beyond reclaiming waste as food, advocates are trying to change the narrative around when food becomes waste, to prevent further loss.

Finally, the authors tell us that because food waste has so much potential to do either harm (emit greenhouses gases if landfilled) or contribute back to the food system (return nutrients to the soil if composted), we are enabled to take action.

Reference: Alexis Van Bemmel & Kate Parizeau (2020) Is it food or is it waste? The materiality and relational agency of food waste across the value chain, Journal of Cultural Economy, 13:2, 207-220, DOI: 10.1080/17530350.2019.1684339


What are some examples of efforts to reduce food waste?

Farmers: The No Taste for Waste initiative features farmers, from fruit to dairy producers, taking action to reduce food waste on their farms, ensuring more food is reaching our plates.

Food Companies: Arrell and HQP Scholars worked with Oreka to identify food waste streams that can be redirected to create high quality animal feed products.

Food Researchers: Provide alternatives to the static date systems, such as labels that change colour to show spoilage, to better communicate to the public the actual state of their food.

Retailers: To address food waste that is a result of visual standards set by retailers, some grocers including Loblaws have started to sell ‘ugly products’ at discounted rates. No Frill’s ‘Naturally Imperfect’ product line consists of fruits and vegetables that would otherwise be wasted due to being misshaped.

What Can You Do?

Plan Ahead. We can reduce our food waste by planning our meals at the beginning of the week. Planning can make our grocery shopping easier (and maybe even less expensive!) if we only purchase foods that we know we will need each week for planned meals.

Storage is Key. By storing food appropriately, we can avoid premature spoilage and make food last longer in our homes. This includes putting perishable foods in the fridge or freezer right after getting home from the grocery store or market. Non-perishable foods do not require as much care, but an organized pantry can help us avoid neglecting foods and far exceeding their use-by labels.

Be Strategic with Leftovers. After a big delicious meal, many of us get excited about the amazing leftovers we are going to have for meals over the next few days. But what if we already have plans for those next few meals? It is important to consider when storing leftovers where they will be best stored (e.g. freezer vs. fridge) based on when you know you can enjoy them next.

Read the Guelph Family Health Study cookbook for more suggestions on how to reduce food waste in your kitchen!

3 Tips for Effectively Mobilizing Knowledge about Food Waste

How do you effectively mobilize knowledge about food waste? We compiled 3 helpful tips that we learned from our experiences in food waste knowledge mobilization and communication.

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