The pandemic has given us new insight into tackling food waste

Lori Nikkel, CEO of Second Harvest shares an Op-ed in The Globe and Mail about tackling food waste during the pandemic.

As the pandemic drags into 2021, with much of the country under renewed lockdown measures, some temporary changes in our behaviour will hopefully become permanent. For many, the past year has brought a real awakening when it comes to their relationship to food – and food waste – as cooking at home became a necessity because of restrictions and concerns about eating at restaurants.

At times, grocers have run low on everything from flour to pork, and suddenly, consumers are more aware than ever about the delicate supply chains that deliver food to store shelves and onto their tables. All along that chain, waste is endemic: almost 60 per cent of food produced for Canadians ends up in the garbage one way or another. That is enough food to feed every Canadian for five months.

With home cooking on the rise, that shocking figure may finally begin to change.

As Canadians have been cooking at home, those of us working to prevent or divert food waste have noticed an encouraging trend: less waste. There are competing theories as to why this might be: Home chefs can tailor dishes to appropriate serving sizes, some note, while others suggest that what might have gone into the garbage at a restaurant becomes leftovers in the home fridge instead.

By night, I count myself among those Canadians now cooking at home, but by day, I work as the CEO of Second Harvest, the country’s largest food-rescue organization. And at the risk of making our work redundant, I hope to see this promising trend persist even after the pandemic ends.

At the very least, I hope that Canadians will begin to value their food more and retain this new-found awareness of food waste. With changes to the food service industry and all the disruption brought about by the pandemic, this year at Second Harvest we were able to rescue and redistribute a record 10 million kilograms of food – which, although a record amount for us, is still less than .01 per cent of the food our country wastes each and every year.

When we reduce or divert food waste, we use it to feed the hungry, of whom we know there are millions more today, because of the economic devastation brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

This simple act has another equally important environmental benefit: The food rescued by Second Harvest this year would have created 75 million pounds of greenhouse gas emissions if it had been left to rot in a landfill – the equivalent of the carbon sequestered by more than half a million trees.

When we waste our food, we waste not only the food itself, but all the resources we used to produce it – from the water for the crops to the fuel for the trucks that transport it to your table.

Food waste is such a serious issue that it will take more than just the efforts of non-profits like ourselves. Recognizing the need for innovative solutions, the federal government is putting $20-million behind the Food Waste Reduction Challenge. As we move towards beating this health crisis, Canadian businesses and consumers alike should afford more attention to this economic and environmentally costly food waste crisis and join the challenge to find solutions.

Hopefully, the food service industry can haul itself back on its feet after the toil and struggle of the past year. We have already seen extraordinary innovations and examples of reinvention, from restaurants that have converted into community kitchens, drive-throughs and even grocers.

Just as consumers have experienced a wholesale change in their attitudes towards food and food waste, there is reason to hope this will also be true of all food businesses. We as workers and consumers must encourage industry to take heed of the food-waste lessons we have learned ourselves through the course of the year and urge food businesses to reduce waste the same way we have in our own kitchens.

By carrying those lessons throughout the tumult of lockdowns and restrictions, we can cultivate a more holistic and practical approach to food waste in this country, one that can ultimately bolster our economy and reduce our environmental impact. We need to change – for ourselves, the millions of people going hungry in Canada and for our planet that is decaying before our very eyes.