Through two world wars, the federal government aimed advertising campaigns at Canadian families, reminding them that people were starving in Europe and that wasting food – even bones – would hurt the war effort. The message tapped into people’s sense of patriotism and duty, encouraging them to conserve food for the sake of the greater good.
But as wartime rationing gave way to mid-century abundance, affordability and larger portion sizes, attitudes changed. Today the idea of cleaning your plate is criticized for encouraging overconsumption and eating disorders.
An estimated six million tonnes of solid food goes to waste every year in Canada between the retail level and the dinner table, or the equivalent of about 180 kilograms per person.
The cost is pegged at more than $31 billion annually, yet many people are unaware of the sheer volume of wasted food or its environmental and economic consequences. When factoring in all the associated costs involved in the food’s production and eventual disposal – such as energy, water, labour and infrastructure – the estimated cost soars to more than $100 billion a year.
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A 2015 study of U.S. consumers found a significant disconnect between perception and reality when it comes to food that goes to waste. When asked about how much food they throw away, 73 per cent of respondents said they discard less than the average household.
“Americans perceive themselves as wasting very little food, but in reality, we are wasting substantial quantities,” said study leader Roni Neff, director of the food system sustainability and public health program at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “It happens throughout the food chain, including both a lot of waste by consumers, and a lot on our behalf, when businesses think we won’t buy imperfect food. The root causes are complex.”
The study also found that the main reason respondents wasted food was out of fear it might make them ill, even though many people toss perfectly edible food prematurely because of confusing or inconsistent labels.
Fewer than half of the respondents said it was important to reduce food waste for environmental reasons. They were most motivated “to reduce food waste due to desires to save money, manage their households efficiently, and set an example for their children.”
Individual consumers are to blame for nearly half of the food wasted in Canada, according to a 2014 report by consulting firm Value Chain Management International.
And despite the enormous costs involved, the report added, businesses “do not see the full impact that food waste has on their operations and profitability, because they do not address it from a value chain perspective.” They mistakenly believe it’s cheaper to dispose of it than to manage it.
One way to keep track of food waste is to conduct audits that can help households and businesses see how much food they discard, as well as where and why. In Thunder Bay, city officials undertook such an audit last year to try to tackle the problem in public institutions such as daycares and long-term care homes.
“Food waste is a lot more complicated than we originally anticipated,” says Kendal Donahue, co-ordinator at Thunder Bay and Area Food Strategy, an advocacy group working toward community food security. She was part of the project that collected and tracked food waste over a five-week period at Pioneer Ridge Home for the Aged, a city-run long-term-care facility.
The audit helped management identify areas in which it could take action. “Breakfast and oatmeal was something that [the home] recognized they could make less of,” Donahue says. They also saw that they could reuse containers that otherwise would have been discarded.
After the Pioneer Ridge audit, a number of other institutions expressed interest in learning from their own waste streams, but the price tag could be a deterrent. “There’s definitely several thousands of dollars attached to [audits],” Donahue says. “You have to have bodies collecting the bags, opening, separating, weighing, tracking and then transportation costs, so that tends to need a fair amount of labour.
“Keep in mind there is waste generated [at multiple stages] so there’s a lot of different streams to break down.”
Besides the inherent challenges of auditing food waste, some people criticize the audits themselves as wasteful. One participant in a recent city-commissioned study of consumer food waste in Calgary called the exercise “silly.” The research initiative, which cost $90,000, asked people in 450 households to weigh their kitchen waste for a week and submit the data.
Clearly, solving the problem of food waste requires a culture change just as much as it does a compost bin. Equating abundance with wealth and the idea of creating surplus are ingrained in our species due to survival instincts, author and activist Tristram Stuart says in Just Eat It, a 2014 documentary about food waste. Impulse shopping is another symptom of this culture of abundance, as is an obsession with perfection.
But there is evidence that attitudes can be altered, both on the corporate and the consumer fronts.
One example of dismantling food assumptions is the ugly produce initiative, in which grocery stores sell blemished and undersized fruits and vegetables at a lower price than more esthetically pleasing products.
Another is the #WhatAWaste campaign, which is pressuring grocers, restaurants and fast-food outlets to donate unsold food.
On The Agenda in the Summer, Tammara Soma, a doctoral candidate in urban planning, has some advice for how people can reduce food waste.