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.
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.