My Term Project – Food Waste in North America

Note: Hey guys, so this is going to be a slightly different post from what you’re used to seeing on here. Briefly explained, I’m using my blog as the platform on which I’m going to be completing my term project for my International Nutrition class at the University of British Columbia. We were asked to investigate issues that contribute to or affect world hunger, and to create a proposal detailing how we could potentially try to tackle these problems. We then had to put the plan explained in our proposal into action and document the process and talk about what we learned, and our experience overall. So I’m going to sound a little more formal than usual, but that’s just because I need to be in school mode here!

Introduction to World Hunger & Food Waste in North America:

As I am sure we have all read about online, in newspapers, or seen in the news, world hunger is a widespread problem in our current day and age that is caused by a multitude of different factors and affected by many issues. As a brief overview of some statistics, one in eight people suffer from malnourishment according to reports by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO, 2012). While most of these malnourished people live in developing countries, many studies and surveys have shown that hunger is still an issue in developed countries such as Canada and the United States.

To give you a perspective on the severity of hunger in developed countries, 14.5% of Americans reported feeling food insecure in 2010, and about 16 million children were in situations where having a stable inflow of food was an issue (Coleman-Jensen et al. 2011). If you haven’t heard of the term food security before, it basically describes the ability that a country, community, or an individual has to have both the physical and economic access to the foods that satisfy both nutritional and preferential or cultural needs (Burns and Withers, 2013). As if those statistics were not surprising enough already, another study showed that an average of 1520 kCal of food is wasted per person, per day in North America, where 61% of all food waste is at the consumer level (Lipinski et al. 2013).

My Project:

In my original proposal to tackle the issues affecting world hunger, my goal was to bring awareness about the amount of food we waste at different parts of the food chain, such as at supermarkets, restaurants, and at home and to adopt a less wasteful lifestyle in terms of shopping and eating. I chose to do this because I am extremely passionate about food, and working in the food industry has allowed me to see how wasteful the industry and we as North Americans can be in general. Like I had mentioned in my original proposal, food often gets thrown out just because it is slightly oblong and affects the visual presentation of the dish, or if a caterer overestimates how much food is needed at an event. Throughout the past few weeks, I have been shopping for and cooking with damaged produce, and trying to get some traction and spread awareness for my project via social media.

Not only did I enjoy the process, but I was also able to gather vast amounts of knowledge from parties from different components of the food chain in regards to food and food waste along the way. It was extremely interesting to learn about how many companies are now being more aware of food waste, and to try and quantify and reduce it. If this is done across many companies, food security in North America would be much more easily attainable, as one study suggests that quantifying food waste at different levels of production and consumption can increase awareness of food waste, reduce the actual amount of food wasted, increase food availability, as well as increasing the purchasing power of consumers, income of farmers, amongst other benefits (Abdulla et al. 2013).

I had the pleasure of talking to Kevin from Klippers Organics, a very popular farm that appears at almost every single farmers’ market held here in Vancouver throughout the year. Their farm is located in Cawston, BC, and they gave me amazing insight on how they have been able to effectively reduce the amount of food that goes to waste on their farm and the community.

Here’s the brief questionnaire I had sent to him along with his responses:

1. Is it much easier to manage waste when selling at a famers’ market compared to produce being sold at supermarkets?

Yes, produce being sold at a supermarket can be sitting on the store shelf for days or even weeks. In our case when we sell at the farmers markets everything gets packed up at the end of the day and is sorted and processed or stored appropriately. i.e.. Onions & squash in appropriate dry storage, apples, carrots, beets in appropriate coolers.

2. Do you guys still sell or distribute food that’s bruised/visually unappealing? If not, would you ever sell it to consumers at a discounted price?

Bruised and visually unappealing food is sold as seconds or as juice grade product. This food also gets diverted to our on-farm processing facility to minimize any food waste.

3. What are a few effective ways of reducing, reusing, or redistributing food waste in our homes, restaurants, or markets?

Cleaning out your fridge on a weekly basis and either juicing produce that won’t last (wilting etc.) or creating menu items with the food you have left before having to throw it out. Food can also be given to community kitchens for processing or preparing meals. If food is already gone bad put in compost to use later as a soil amendment.

4. Do you think that North Americans are too fixated on shopping for produce with just their eyes?

I think this was the case in the past but as consumers are shopping more at farmers markets and tasting the fresh food looks are becoming less of a factor for market shoppers. In super markets I think consumers still want that perfect looking item.

5. Do you guys work with or know of any food organizations in Vancouver that reuse or redistribute unwanted/unused food? Or do you think it would be effective to have more organizations of these natures to be around?

We do work with several community kitchens who prepare food for youth on the downtown Eastside or low income families. Also, Vancouver farmers markets have the food scrap people that come and also do a donation tent for Thunderbird school. The market has done other distributions to a women’s shelter and rehab centres, etc. as well. This allows all market vendors to participate and give back to the communities that they sell in.

I also had the opportunity to talk to Brandon Dac, the head chef behind Edgeceptional Catering, one of Vancouver’s premiere catering companies about food waste in both restaurants and the catering business. Brandon has been in the industry for many years, and told me about how terribly wasteful some restaurants can be, and how he minimizes waste in his kitchen and business. He was actually my first resource when I started my project, and after hearing about my project and our interview, he told me about places where I could shop, and also gave me ideas about recipes I could make with less than perfect produce.

Here are some of the questions he answered for me:

1.Do you guys waste more raw products, or do you waste more finished products?

We waste more raw products back at the restaurant, while more finished products go to waste at catering events.

2. Are there any specific ways of trying to reduce waste within the restaurant?

Using proper rotation techniques and proper handling of food, such as proper storage, buying what is in season, etc. Also, making sure the “first in, first out” rule is utilized, meaning that we place all new products in the back and bring older products out to the front.

3. Do you guys work with any food recycling or redistribution programs? If not, would you be interested? Or would that be too much work.

We usually have a person picking up a compost, and a lot of unused products are donated to non profits.

4. Would you be willing to use damaged or ugly produce from your suppliers if they sold it at a lower price?

It really depends on what it is being used for. If the produce is being used for a visually important aspect of the dish such as a garnish, it needs to be Triple A quality.

5. What are some of the most wasteful practices in the restaurant business or in homes?

Sloppy prep, not using peelers, and not utilizing all parts of produce. For instance, you could use tomato ends in soups and salsas instead of just throwing them out.

With this information, I began to tweet things such as where and when you could find cheap produce, tips to reduce waste in both home and restaurant kitchens, and locations of different places you could drop off food scraps. I also started posting photos via Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter of dishes I made with food scraps or produce that many people would have deemed inedible or visually unappealing. The response I got was amazing. For instance, I made an apple galette that only cost me $3, and a fennel and orange salad that cost me $2 to make and posted photos on Instagram and Facebook. Within 24 hours, I got a collective amount of about 500 likes and comments. People had also started to thank me for telling them about little markets where they could find cheap, slightly damaged, but still edible produce that would have gone to waste at larger supermarkets.

The fennel, orange, and grapefruit salad ($2 to make) on top, and an apple galette ($3 to make) on bottom

Recipe for the fennel salad (click through link)

Recipe for apple galette (click through link)

But did I aid the effort to end world hunger? I think my greatest contribution would be how I laid out some excellent examples of how people who are not as well off in North America could become more food secure by learning how to shop, and how every person can reduce food waste in different points of the food chain. However, there are limitations to my tips, suggestions, and proposed changes. For instance, not every person has access to a farmers’ market or stores such as Sunrise, and not every city will have such conscientious, and small-scaled farms such as Klippers or restaurants who cares about waste, or would be willing to change or learn new practices to reuse food or reduce waste. But I absolutely think I made a difference in my household and within my social circle and networks. My parents now often shop at the market I go to for all my cheap produce (Sunrise Market), hardly any food we bring into our home goes to waste or is uneaten, and I have had people reach out to me in person, or on social networks telling me about how they are much “smarter” shoppers now. Our compost went from consisting of uneaten bananas and food to just being rinds and inedible cores and seeds. Raising awareness of the amount of food wasted in restaurants, households, farms, and markets and how they could change to reduce waste was my main goal, and I believe I successfully managed to do that.

The most important thing I learned from doing this was realizing how integral connections are in reducing waste. Connecting with others is what really allowed the companies I interviewed to redistribute food and reduce waste. Without these connections, nobody would be there to take in unused food from restaurants, or people to take in food scraps for compost to be placed back onto farms. Moving forward, I’m definitely going to continue this style of “thrifty” food shopping, as well as spreading knowledge about reusing/redistributing food, and reducing waste as I learn even more about it. I am most likely to continue posting different tips about these topics via Twitter and my blog, as the response I received throughout this project was immensely positive and I was glad to see how many people were invested in it and shared my project amongst their friends and family. Hopefully, it will get the ball rolling and more and more people will become knowledgeable and skilled in reducing food waste as information gets passed on.

References:

  • Coleman-Jensen, A., Nord, M., Andrews, M., Carlson, S. (2011) Household Food Security in the United States in 2010. Economic Research Report No. (ERR-125) Retrieved from http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/err-economic-research-report/err125.aspx#.UkRqSGSY6jc
  • Lipinski, B., Hanson, C., Waite, R., Searchinger, T., Lomax, J., Kitinoja, L. (2013) Creating a Sustainable Food Future, Installment Two: Reducing Food Loss and Waste. World Resources Institute. Retrieved from http://www.wri.org/publication/reducing-food-loss-and-waste
  • Food And Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (2012). The State of Food Insecurity in the World. Retrieved from http://www.fao.org/docrep/016/i3027e/i3027e00.htm
  • Burns, H., Withers, D. (2013). Enhancing Food Security Through Experiential Sustainability Leadership Practices: A Study of the Seed to Supper Program. Journal of Sustainability Education, 5. Retrieved from http://www.jsedimensions.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Denissia-Withers-and-Heather-Burns-finalproofMay2013.pdf
  • Abdulla, M., Martin, R. C., Gooch, M., & Jovel, E. (2013). The importance of quantifying food waste in Canada. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, 3(2), 137–151. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.5304/jafscd.2013.032.018