Waste Not: Diverting food waste away from landfills can help others and drive profit

By Lori Nikkel

Remember doing word problems in math class? Here’s one about food waste that will help you understand how it’s currently measured in much of the Canadian food value chain: Jan makes a chocolate cake for a dessert buffet. The cost of ingredients is $22, plus Jan paid an assistant for two hours at $14 per hour. The cake isn’t eaten, so Jan throws it in the garbage. The garbage bag cost 20 cents. What is the total cost of the uneaten cake? Is it $22, $50 or 20 cents?

If you answered $22 or $50, you’re incorrect. Standard food industry practice is that the value of the wasted cake is based on the cost of the fee to dispose of it, so the “correct” answer is 20 cents. (If you answered, “Why would Jan throw an entire cake in the garbage?” then you’re on your way to becoming a food rescuer.)

In case you thought that the wasted cake example above is exaggerated for effect, consider these recent research findings from Second Harvest: an astonishing 58 per cent of all food produced in Canada — 35.5 million tonnes — is lost or wasted at all points along the value chain. Thirty-two per cent of that — 11.2 million tonnes — is composed of potentially rescuable and edible food.

That 11.2 million tonnes of avoidable loss and waste is the result of, among other practices, surplus milk going into sewers, thousands of acres of produce being plowed under due to cancelled orders and fish caught then tossed back into the sea to die because they don’t match the quota. It’s millions of tonnes of food that could be rescued but isn’t, and it’s enough to feed every single Canadian for five months.

Managing and Measuring

The hotel, restaurant and institutional foodservice sector in Canada is responsible for 1.44 million metric tonnes of that waste. Loss occurs when restaurants have poorly managed prep or plate waste, or offer over-abundant buffets to diners who over-fill their plates and leave the excess uneaten. Both individual consumers and the food supply chain have created a culture of accepting waste even though there is no business case for it — and certainly no social or environmental one.

It’s hard to justify throwing away edible food when one in eight Canadian households struggles to put food on the table. Food decomposing in landfills creates huge amounts of CO2 and methane, known contributors to climate change, and that’s after the environmental impact of the gas, electricity, water and human labour used to produce the food in the first place.

Why has food waste become standard operating procedure, despite its deeply negative impacts? As the old saying goes, “You can’t manage what you don’t measure,” and there is very little consistency in measuring, valuing and monitoring food loss and waste. But for many businesses, it’s easier to send food to landfill and, combined with low tipping fees, managing excess responsibly can seem like the costlier option. We also have come to see food as just another commodity, not as something intrinsic to supporting life and improving health.

We have to stop treating food waste as merely a garbage issue and recognize it as the global calamity it actually is: according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we only have 11 years to control global temperatures before there is irreversible damage. Managing food waste is a key component of reaching that goal.

Insight and Action

Food waste is massive problem, but not insurmountable. Learn about the scope of the food waste crisis by reading Second Harvest’s The Avoidable Crisis of Food Waste. Use that information and take steps to implement the report’s suggested solutions and actions for change.

Start a food recovery and donation program. Second Harvest has created FoodRescue.ca which connects food businesses to nonprofits in their area who can pick up rescued food for use in community meal and nutrition programs.

In a crowded marketplace, a business that can deliver a quality product and provide triple-bottom line benefits has an advantage. Consumers are increasingly making choices not just based on value-for-money and quality, but on the values that an organization embodies. Guests want to feel good about where they eat, so make it easy for them. It’s possible to change the culture of waste, one kitchen at a time. You can have your cake, and you can rescue it, too.

As CEO of Second Harvest, Canada’s largest food rescue organization, Lori Nikkel ensures that thousands of tonnes of nutrient-dense surplus food is diverted to social service agencies every year. Nikkel also advised on the development of Ontario’s Food and Organic Waste Framework and is a member of the Management Board of the National Zero Waste Council.

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