Gap between consumers and producers promotes food waste

Throwing out a bit of old bread or a mouldy apple here or there might not seem like much, but it adds up, Susan Huebert points out.

$31B-a-year problem must be tackled, Susan Huebert writes

Produce with blemishes is often thrown out because people won't buy it, Susan Huebert points out. (Getty Images)

You've probably either personally experienced or at least heard about a phenomenon that could be called an involuntary science experiment or, as a vocabulary contest participant once called it, a "bachelor's garden." Whether it involves rock-hard bread, decaying lettuce turning black at the back of the refrigerator or leftovers growing fuzz after weeks of waiting to be eaten, food waste is common in Canadian society.

Throwing out a bit of old bread or a mouldy apple here or there might not seem like much, but it adds up. Canadians waste close to 40 per cent of the food grown in this country, whether the waste comes in the form of food that farmers cannot manage to harvest, produce that fails to meet supermarket standards or food that goes bad in people's homes.

It seems to me that part of the problem is the lack of connection between the ways food is produced and sold in this country and the realities of the population. Between 1971 and 2006, average family size declined from 3.5 to 2.5 and the number of people living alone has grown, while at the same time, store managers apparently have worked on the assumption that most customers need to cook for at least 10 or 15 people each week.

Think of the many discounts people receive for buying food in large quantities and the relatively high prices people pay for buying smaller amounts. When two blocks of cheese of entirely different sizes cost almost the same amount, for example, who wouldn't be tempted to buy the bigger piece, even if large parts of it go to waste?

The presentation of food also seems to me to play a large part in the issue of waste. When I go shopping and see the vast, carefully arranged pyramids of apples and oranges, I often wonder how much of the fruit actually gets eaten. Is the goal to give the impression of plenty rather than to bring in the food that people need and want?

The quantity of food is one issue; the quality is another. According to the David Suzuki Foundation, about 30 per cent of the food produced in Canada never makes it to grocery store shelves because of minor blemishes or other characteristics that fail to meet certain standards.

Film explores fresh obsession

On the weekend, I attended the Global Justice Film Festival in Winnipeg, which included a documentary called Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story, about a couple exploring North Americans' obsession with best before dates and perfect-looking food. They found cracked eggs, bananas with slightly blemished peels and even an entire garbage bin of hummus that had been discarded simply because of its expiry date.   

According to a report published in 2014, food waste in Canada cost the country more than $31 billion that year, not including the food wasted in institutions such as prisons and hospitals or the money spent on resources such as water or energy involved in growing the food. That cost was 15 per cent more than it had been four years before, and it is still rising.

I wonder if the problem of waste is the result of a process similar to what has happened with housing: the commodification of a necessity of life. Just as massive suburbs have grown up with huge, half-empty houses in order to give people the feeling of wealth, the food industry seems to be designed to encourage excess and waste, and customers often seem to be more than willing to play along.

Make imperfect food available

Before the age of agribusiness, when farms were small and many people kept a chicken or two or at least had a small garden, food waste was far less of a problem. Now that many people have little or no access to plots of land where they can grow their own food and lack any experience with gardening, the situation is more complicated, but the problem is not insurmountable.

Perhaps community organizations could arrange trips out to fruit farms so that people could pick their own raspberries or strawberries. They could encourage the managers of grocery stores to make imperfect food readily available to people who want it, and food producers could help make it easier for people to use what might otherwise be wasted, perhaps by setting up outdoor stations where people could pick up whatever discarded food they want.

All levels of society need to co-operate to reduce food waste in Canada and elsewhere. Lettuce might still occasionally rot at the back of the refrigerator and store employees might still sometimes throw out blemished fruit or expired hummus, but even a small change could start something big.<

Susan Huebert is a Winnipeg writer and editor.


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