Tackling Waste by Re-thinking our Relationship with Food

Posted on Wednesday, 13 April 2022 under Stories

The climate impact of our food choices is not only determined by the food we eat, but also by the food that we do not eat. In Canada, nearly 60 percent of the food produced every year is lost or wasted. Food waste is an enormous problem with serious ramifications for the climate, economy, and people.

An innovative research project by Canada’s largest food rescue organization, Second Harvest, concluded that to reduce food waste, “We need to start by radically re-thinking how we value food.” This is true at all levels of the food supply chain, from policy to our kitchens.

The way we relate to and value food, both as a society and as individual eaters, is an integral aspect of the multifaceted problem of food waste. As eaters, tackling the issue of food waste in our homes involves building different relationships with the food that we eat. Despite the immensity of the problem of food waste, we can have a significant impact by starting to value food differently.

Maddie Hague, Community and Sustainability Manager at the Food Stash Foundation, a non-profit that works to reduce and redirect food waste in Vancouver, describes the problem of food waste in Canada as unfathomable. “If food waste were its own country, it would be the third largest emissions producer in the world,” says Hague. Close to 60 percent of the environmental footprint of Canada’s food industry is from food loss and waste. “We could cut millions of metric tons of CO2 nationally if we just eliminated food loss and waste,” Hague describes.

The amount of food wasted has disastrous implications for both people and the planet. Globally, substantially reducing food waste and loss is essential to achieving environmental sustainability and a just food system that produces healthy diets.

Photo by The Food Stash Foundation

Considering the scale of the problem of food waste and loss globally, it can be daunting to start to tackle food waste in our own homes. As individuals trying to limit our food waste, we are swimming upstream. We are eating from a system that is not aligned with climate solutions and the reduction of waste. It is important to try not to get discouraged or overwhelmed with guilt.

While recognizing the systemic roots of the problem is important, however, it does not mean that as eaters we are powerless to create change. Whether large or small, we can make choices that challenge the current mode of operation and act as catalysts for change.

A central aspect of the problem of food waste is a broken relationship with food. Click To Tweet

Lesley Assu of the Haida Nation, is the owner and operator of Standing Spruce Farm and Apothecary in Campbell River, BC. Assu is a farmer and herbalist, raised in Haida Gwaii and in her father’s community, the We Wai Kai First Nation. Describing the root of the problem of food waste, Assu says, “Food stopped being about sustaining people in a healthy way and started just being about money and consumerism.” She goes on to say, “It becomes a real danger when it stops being about feeding people and becomes just about making money.”

Hague likewise sees our society’s relationship with food as the root of the problem of food waste and food injustice. At its core, the issue of food waste stems from the way we look at food. She describes how we have moved to see food as a commodity rather than as a human right.

Hague says, “By treating food as a commodity, we put these perfectionist standards on the food. So if it’s not perfect, it’s not going to make it to market because it can’t compete in the market […] So, imperfections, even though those happen all the time in nature, mean that the product is defective. And so it’s destroyed, it’s lost before anyone’s given the chance to benefit from it.”

Hague elaborates by tying the commoditization of food to food injustice, saying that because food is seen as a commodity “We actually normalize this idea that people just starve if they don’t have money for it to make that transaction.”

Echoing the insights of Assu and Hague, Jumana Risheq describes how “A big part of why we see so much wastefulness and why we see so much harm coming out of our food systems […] is that we don’t understand our food for what it really is.”

Risheq is a second-generation Palestinian refugee, born in Jordan, and raised in both Jordan and Canada. She has studied herbal medicine, holistic nutrition, permaculture, and ecological design, and focuses her work on food accessibility, relationship to land, and herbal medicine.

Risheq describes how so often in dominant Western culture, food systems and food waste are talked about from a pragmatic perspective, with a focus on the statistics of tonnes of carbon and truck loads of waste. “Those are very important things to know” she says, “But at the end of the day, no amount of intellectual understanding will ever be able to teach or create the mental shifts in a human being than the actual experiential relationship of growing food, watching where it comes from, seeing soil, watching food decompose into the soil, with your own eyes, bodies, hands, hearts recognizing the truth of what food actually is.”

Research in the United States has supported Risheq’s point that intellectual understanding does not necessarily lead to behaviour change. A 2017 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that people who understood the significance of the problem of food waste were no more likely to waste food less.

Risheq says, “When we see food as a product that we buy we don’t have to invest any time or energy into understanding its processes.” She describes how this leads to a fracturing “In our understanding of what food is, where we see it as something that can be waste.” Risheq points out, however, that dominant Western society has a uniquely fragmented food culture.

Standing Spruce Farm & Apothecary, run by Lesley Assu and her family, has a zero-waste policy. Assu makes sure they are using all the parts of the animals they raise and finding uses for all the food they grow. Assu’s Indigenous upbringing has shaped her approach to farming and the practices that she adopts.

She describes the difficulty of seeing such wasteful and unjust food systems after her traditional upbringing in a community with food values that contrast sharply with those that the industrial food system perpetuates. Assu shares, “Food is given away on a huge scale, and in a lot of First Nations communities, especially the one where I’m from, there wouldn’t be somebody going hungry. It just doesn’t happen. Nobody is starving and everyone’s eating healthy food. You know, these people are living off the seafood and venison in Haida Gwaii.”

“And when you’re raised that way where you have to conserve, you’re making dried fish or canning crab, you’re filling your stores and everyone is sharing. Then, you come into a bigger town or different place and you see people starving. It does a lot to your mind to be raised traditionally that way and then have to see the waste.” She goes on to say, “Sometimes I feel like I was raised in the 1800s because how can this stuff be so shocking to me? Why don’t I think this is normal?”

The practices and values that Assu grew up have made her an incredibly attentive farmer. At Standing Spruce, they make sure that nothing of their cows is wasted, keeping the bones for soup, trading the skins, and using the fat to make salves and soaps. In addition, the animals are fed in part through the Loop program with food that grocery stores in the area have thrown out. This allows the farm to make use of food that is not fit for human consumption that was previously being discarded.

Photo by Standing Spruce Farm & Apothecary

Risheq describes her surprise at the disconnection between people and food when she first came to Canada. “It seemed like people didn’t know the names of the trees around them, and they didn’t really connect to the food. I remember one of the most stark things that blew my mind when I came here was that there were no butchers. You didn’t ever see a dead animal anywhere. You only saw cleanly packaged meat”.

In contrast, she was accustomed to a more intimate relationship with her food and understanding of where it came from. “You have this really direct connection and understanding of where your food comes from and that your food isn’t food, it’s life,” she says. “Whether that’s the plants that you’re engaging with, whether that’s the animals you’re engaging with, whether it’s bones, whether it’s oils, what you’re consuming is not a food product, it’s a form of life that’s now serving you in a way.”

Taryn Barker is the owner and head butcher at The Little Butcher, a butcher shop in Port Moody that sells locally-sourced meats. The Little Butcher practices whole animal butchery, using all parts of the animals they butcher rather than only select cuts. Barker comments on how the large majority of eaters do not really make the connection that “What you’re eating is and was an animal. It was a whole animal. It wasn’t just your favourite cut, it wasn’t just a rib eye, and it wasn’t just a new york, it was a whole animal.”

Whole animal butchery is an important practice in shifting our relationship with meat and animals. Practicing whole animal butchery at The Little Butcher, Barker describes, requires a lot of education and communication with their customers. People often come in looking for specific cuts, Taryn says, but “We get one whole cow every week, so we only have so many of each cut.” “You really need to be able to talk to them and be able to suggest something else.” She adds that there are many alternatives that they can point people to. “It is the right way to be going in my heart and mind,” she says, “But you have to get creative and be smart and think about what you can do.”

Photo by Standing Spruce Farm & Apothecary

Building a healthier, more connected, and sustainable relationship with food can help to reduce waste. Click To Tweet

Learning about the scale of the global problem of food waste and the issues in our food systems is heavy. “There is a lot of existential anxiety and overwhelm. I think for a lot of eaters, they learn more about what’s going on in our food systems and it can feel daunting” Risheq says. “I think sometimes it’s really important to find ways to create small movements and education that are based on joy and pleasure and creativity and get us excited about what it looks like to create a waste-free culture.”

Instead of focusing on reducing waste, Risheq encourages, “Maybe look at it as, I want to increase my creativity and what I get out of what I spend my money on.” She adds, “That’s a perspective shift that I think can help to mitigate a lot of the social anxiety and social guilt that we feel.”

Risheq adds that rebuilding our connection to food can also change our relationship with waste. She says, “When we engage in a more involved way in our food and our food production, our food waste, we are irrevocably changed by it.” She says, “Start growing some food, start growing some herbs, start getting familiar with the relationship and the process of creating food because it’s an inevitable thing, once you see how much energy goes into growing one stalk of broccoli, you’re a lot more likely to eat all of your broccoli.”

She says, “If you grow your own plant, you’re a lot less likely to let any part of that plant go to waste because you’ve seen the months and months and months and months of work, energy, and life force between all kinds of organisms just to produce you that one calendula flower. So through the creation of food, through the fostering and the stewarding of food, we inherently feel a sense of responsibility.”

Hague also suggests, “Teaching people the skills to grow and making sure there’s space available for people to grow” as a way to build connections and move away from seeing food as a commodity. She describes the redirection of food waste as a band-aid solution. Though the work of organizations like the Food Stash Foundation is incredibly important, it is not the end goal. “Food Stash can go and we can rescue the surplus after it already happens,” Hague says, but “What we are really interested in is, how can we prevent the surplus?”

Likewise, Assu recommends building a healthier and more connected relationship with food through growing it. She says people don’t always realize “How simple it is to be successful at growing something.” She acknowledges at the same time that not everyone has the opportunity or space to be able to grow food. For those who do not have access to space or have constraints on their time, forging a connection with farmers like Assu can have a positive impact. She says, “Even if you’re just taking your kids to go to a farm to buy eggs, it’s still forging that connection.”

Risheq also emphasizes that not everyone has “The money, the resources, the land access or the time to grow their own food.” She encourages, “You don’t need to be a grower, you don’t need to be a farmer. There are little ways that you can have relationships with plants that are just as meaningful and will teach you just as much about the relationship to food.”

She encourages folks to find creative ways to get more involved, saying, “There’s a lot of fun and beauty and saving of money to be had just through learning how to use what you already have in your house and what you already purchase in order to create more abundance and more opportunities for creativity and connection to food and plants.”

If you are looking to reduce your food waste, it is important to find an approach that works for you.

Building a different relationship with your food and discovering ways to reduce waste is a personal journey. Each circumstance is different and there are so many ways we can all engage. For some it might mean making a bone broth with bones from a local butcher or creating a detailed weekly meal plan. For others, it might look like planting a seed in a small pot on your balcony.

However you decide to approach it, fostering a closer relationship with the food you eat can be a powerful step in learning to value it differently. It allows you to feel connected and enjoy your food more and helps you to notice and seek out ways to waste less.