Waste not, want not: Reforming food systems in Canada

I was angry when I learned in June that over 800,000 liters of milk had been dumped into Ontario waste lagoons. A family I was helping at that time often went without milk to stretch a limited budget. In September I empathized with farmers who marched their cows to Parliament Hill to protest against cheap imported milk under a proposed new trade agreement. From both ends, it seems that the covenant between milk producers and milk drinkers in Canada needs renewal. 

Dairy products are just one piece of a larger food system that needs reform, starting with waste reduction. Did you know that more than six million tons of edible food go to waste each year in Canada? It was valued at $31 billion in 2014, according to a study done by Value Chain Management International. At the same time about four million people live on less than adequate nutrition. That raises ethical questions about the food distribution system. To add another layer, there are initiatives to ban junk food advertising to children, out of concern for nutrition and obesity. The marketing of food raises challenging questions about the rights and responsibilities of all parties in the food chain. Then there’s the social pressure of our foodie culture to serve gourmet or fad foods.

Whether your entry point is waste, poor nutrition, hunger in Canada, sustainability of farmers or food snobbery, digging deeper uncovers a need for systemic improvement in the way we manage food resources. Cheap, nutritious food is something most of us take for granted. If we stop to think more about it, we feel ashamed about the high level of food waste in Canada at the same time as thousands of children lack adequate nutrition to fully develop their capabilities. Changing it is a challenge.

Look at the big picture
Food only gets national attention when there is a food safety issue like tainted meat. In recent years Food Secure Canada, a national advocacy group, has called for a national food policy to achieve the goal of zero hunger. Like other important issues, it has been largely ignored. I wonder if it might get more traction if it also focused on reduction of food waste.

Changing the way we treat food will require intentional action from the household level, where a high percentage of the waste occurs, through food retailers and marketers, to food producers. It will require individual change and systemic change to remove current incentives to waste. In many places, for example, disposal costs are lower than the costs of finding an alternate use for surplus food. No one counts or pays the environmental cost of the methane gas produced by food waste in landfill sites.

Standardization, key to global food systems, has many positive impacts, but it also leads to the rejection of perfectly good food that doesn’t quite look like the norm, without regard for hungry people. Food safety regulations, designed to prevent individual infections, often have unintended consequences. In many places they prevent giving surplus prepared food to agencies that run meal programs. The long-term impact of children going without adequate food is not considered when risks are calculated and rules are made.

Two principles for change
Thankfully, there are some positive steps underway. Movements to grow more food in cities and get fresh produce to low-income families are a good start, and could be expanded. Many food banks benefit from food diversion programs, but they are not an efficient way to get nutritious food to those who need it.

At a deeper level, reforming food systems will require an attitudinal change. The core value we need is the one expressed in the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread.” Us – not me. Daily bread – enough. Two principles, grounded in Scripture, could drive meaningful change. The first is waste reduction. The second is recognition that every person has a right to have reasonable access to an adequate supply of nutritious food.

To reduce waste we need to set targets. In the United Kingdom, a focused effort reduced food waste by 21 percent in five years. Used creatively, the savings could go a long way to resource the provision of food for those who are excluded from the current marketplace. To reduce hunger we need to link local food security plans with changes in social policy, public health and agriculture.
In one generation, the food scarcity mindset of my mother’s Depression-era shifted to the food plenty mindset of mainstream Canadian culture. Hopefully the next shift is toward good stewardship.

  • Kathy Vandergrift, a public policy analyst, brings experience in government, social justice work and a Master’s Degree in Public Ethics to her reflections.

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