Hi, my name is Evan Fraser, and I'm the director of the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph. This is part of a regular podcast series on how to feed the future in a way that is healthy, sustainable, and nutritious. In front of me, I have a $20 bill. If you have your wallet nearby, I encourage you to join in this exercise. Now I'd like everyone to grab your favourite pair of scissors and... cut that money into as many pieces as you can. Come on, it's your turn now! No? Okay, I know what you're thinking that was an unnecessary and a foolish waste of money. But believe it or not, the average household in Canada wastes approximately $18 to $30 of food per week. Per week! Could you imagine if I asked you to shred $20 of cash on a weekly basis?
On today's podcast, we're going to be taking a dumpster dive into food waste. Today, I am joined by Kiana Gibson. She's a third year undergraduate student at the University of Guelph studying international development and nutritional science. Kiana became interested in food waste when she started an initiative on campus called MealCare, an organisation that collects edible leftover food from university dining halls and donates it to the student food bank as well as homeless shelters in the community. The goal of MealCare is to redistribute recoverable food that otherwise would have been unnecessarily wasted, and give this food to vulnerable populations in need. Kiana, you didn't seem all that eager to join in on my money shredding exercise, did you?
You're absolutely right, Evan. No chance you could convince me to do that! But you do highlight an important issue in Canada and around the world: food waste. Food waste is a problem that occurs across the entire supply chain. This includes food producers like farmers, industries that process food, food retailers such as restaurants and grocery stores, and consumers of food like you and I. In fact, in Canada, it is estimated that $31 billion of food is wasted every year. Now that would require a lot of scissors to cut up.
No kidding. And it's important to consider the negative consequences of food waste beyond just an economic perspective. It also represents a huge waste of all the resources that went into growing and preparing that food, the land, the water, the nutrients in the soil, as well as the associated packaging, processing and transportation costs. from an environmental perspective, food that ends up in landfill gets trapped under garbage, and without air decomposes and releases methane. Methane is a gas that's 20 times worse than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere. That means that methane emissions are rapidly contributing to the greenhouse gas effect and overall warming of the earth. This is causing dangerous levels of climate change. In this regard, composting is a better strategy than simply throwing food in the garbage. But when you consider that nearly 80% of consumer food waste was once perfectly edible, it's hard to justify even composting.
That's right, and consider the ethical implications of food waste as well. In Canada, around 4 million people, or 1 in 8 households, are food insecure. Food insecurity, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization means not having physical or financial access to enough safe and nutritious food to meet one's dietary needs and cultural preferences for an active and healthy life. It's almost embarrassing that we allow so much food waste, much of which could have been consumed, when there are 1000s of Canadians who aren't getting enough to eat.
All right. We've already established that food waste is a prevalent issue in Canada with various economic, environmental and ethical implications. But what can be done about it? Let's start on one side of the scale household food waste. After all, approximately 40% that's almost half of the food wasted in Canada occurs at home.
That's right. Today we are bringing in Molly Gallant, a master's student at the University of Guelph, to talk to us about a unique food waste project called the Rock What You've Got Cookbook.
So Molly, thank you so much for joining us today. And I was wondering if you could just provide our students with a little bit of background into who you are, and what your undergrad was in, and how you ended up working on this food waste initiative.
Yeah, well, thank you so much for having me today. I'm excited to talk to you more about food waste. So like you said, my name is Molly. I did my undergrad here at the University of Guelph in arts and science, where I double minored in nutrition and nutraceutical sciences, and family and child studies. And then after I completed my undergrad I went on to do my Master's in human health and nutritional sciences. Mike von Massow was starting to do a food waste project and he needed somebody to help with the data collection. So I thought, that sounds good, I'll get some research experience, I'll see hands on what food waste looks like in our community. But little did I know that that actually meant digging through people's garbage. So for that project we were collecting garbage, compost, and recycling, we were quantifying their food waste in a really detailed way. When we got some funding for a larger scale study, I got hired full time as a research assistant to help with that project.
So you got your background in food waste, and that's how you got into it. And now we're here today to talk about the Rock What You've Got Cookbook.
Yeah, so it's a project largely led by the Guelph Family Health Study. And they do some amazing work with families in the community to try and develop lifelong healthy habits. So the group that I work with is the Guelph Food Waste Research Project. And Mike von Massow and Kate Parizeau, from the Department of Geography, are the co-directors of that group. And then we also got some funding from the Helderleigh Foundation, and we worked with George Brown College in Toronto, their Food Innovation and Research Studio, to develop and test the recipes that we used. So it was a multi-tiered project, many collaborators, which I think was really helpful to creating the product that we have now.
Can you explain for people that have maybe never heard about this cookbook, where the inspiration came from, and what separates it from just any other cookbook?
Yeah, for sure. First of all, it was something that was asked for by our research end users. So the people that we want to target were asking for this resource. So that shows that there's a real need. And then based on years of doing research in the community, we were able to be really evidence based with the suggestions that we put in. So for example, in our previous audits, we've quantified food waste, and we've found the top wasted avoidable food items. So for example, one of our more recent audits, I think tomato was one of the really, highly wasted products. So that tells us a couple things, it says where maybe people are wasting tomatoes, because they don't know how to store them, or maybe they don't know recipes to repurpose tomatoes. So we're able to use that evidence base that, what we see in the data to actually inform the recipes and the tips that we developed for this cookbook.
Okay, and what's most often wasted in a house, and, and do you know why?
Yeah, that's a great question. So based on the audits that we've done, and I should say that we focus primarily on the avoidable portion of food waste. So sometimes what researchers will distinguish between avoidable and unavoidable food waste. Avoidable food waste, meaning edible food, so food that could have at some point been eaten. Whereas unavoidable food waste would be things like some bones in meat or a banana peel, things that we don't normally consume or we wouldn't consider edible. Whereas something like carrot peels, that we would say, is avoidable, because you can eat them.
So all of our research is focused on the avoidable portion of food waste. And across 94 families that we looked at most recently, in a household food waste composition study, we found that 65% of the avoidable food waste was fruits and vegetables. And then after that about a quarter was bread and cereals. And then we see meat and fish, milk, cheese, and eggs. As for why that happens, I mean, I have to look no further than my own kitchen. These foods are fairly perishable. So if we're not really confident in our ability to cook, or we don't know how to store these things properly, or maybe sometimes we just buy too much, because it always looks so beautiful in the grocery store.
All of these things can contribute to that being such a significant portion of our waste. That, it has allowed some great partnerships across the university. Because suddenly food waste is not just an environmental and economic issue. It's also a health one. Because it shows us that we're doing a really good job at buying our fruits and vegetables, we're just not so good at using them up and actually eating them. So if we're able to reduce food waste generation, will simultaneously, hopefully, increase health and fruit vegetable intake, which I think shows a real win-win. Right?
So we had three different types of recipes that we included in the cookbook. So you said one of the great ones, actually one of my favourite, is the two in one recipes. Because I think something that sometimes we have when it comes to leftovers, is this thing that's been referred to in the literature as leftover fatigue. So we cook something and we have leftovers and we think oh, we really should eat this. But maybe the next day, after eating it three times in a row, we're less tempted to eat the same thing. So the two in one recipes gives you creative ways to repurpose some of these recipes. And I think that can be really helpful for busy families as well. And maybe picky eaters in the house who sometimes need a little bit more variety to be able to have a healthy diet.
The other kind of recipes that we have our fridge clean out recipes. So I would say that one's my favourite because there's only two people in my household. So sometimes we'll buy things that are in larger portions than we can actually eat. And that means we have odds and ends of different things sitting around in our fridge. So by the end of the week, you don't really have maybe everything you need for that perfect recipe. But something like the fridge clean out recipes gives you a lot of flexibility in terms of what you can use. So for example, it'll say a recipe and it'll say two cups of greens. And that could be broccoli, it could be peas, it could be kale, it could be anything that you have kind of odds and ends leftover in the fridge. And it allows you that flexibility, which I think is important and kind of empowering, because it shows that, you know, this cooking doesn't have to be perfect, you can use what you have. And you can make the most of it, which is really the essence of the cookbook, right?
When we look at the contributors to household food waste, it's so complex. If you think about all the things and all the steps that go into purchasing, planning, preparing, storing, cooking, eating all of these different steps that happen between food acquisition to consumption, to managing leftovers, there's a lot of different steps and a lot of different competing priorities at each phase of this process. So some people will struggle more with the planning part. So we can provide tips on that some people will struggle more with the storage part or the preparing part. So I think providing these different elements at each phase allows people to pick and choose what might work best for their family.
I don't think the goal of zero food waste is really one that is achievable. Especially if we think about the unavoidable components of food waste, the parts that we can't eat, there's always going to be some food waste. But what we can do and what I think we have a huge opportunity to do is to focus on those avoidable portions, figure out strategies that work for us, and be forgiving of ourselves and not, you know, expect perfection right away. Because a lot of these habits take time and they take awareness and they take knowledge and skills, and that takes time to build.
One thing though, that I see very commonly across my friends and even across family is this really big obsession with best before dates? And I was wondering if you could touch on that a little bit?
Yeah, for sure. It's a really good question. I will preface my answer by saying that that's not entirely a focus of our research group. So I personally haven't doneresearch on people's perceptions of best before dates and their understanding of them. Although I know that that's something that we're looking into in future projects. However, just from the perspective of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, their definitions are pretty clear. They say that a best before date, or a durable life date is something that they refer to in the food processing side of things, means the amount of time that an unopened food product when stored under appropriate conditions will retain its freshness, taste, nutritional value, or any other qualities that are claimed by the manufacturer. So it really is within the name there, it's a best before, this will taste the best before this date. So that's not always an indication of food safety.
Whereas something like an expiration date is a lot more clear cut. So expiration dates are quite different from best before dates. And they're only put on foods that have strict compositional nutritional specifications that might not be met after the expiration date. So an example of a product that would have an expiration date is a formulated liquid diet, a food that's using a low energy diet, maybe recommended by a pharmacist or a prescription written for physician, a meal replacement, nutritional supplement or infant formula. So something that is highly regulated and is a little bit more medicinal and its purpose. So these we have to pay really close attention to because there is a food safety risk, beyond that date. Whereas something like a best before date, it's just a little bit more confusing and a little bit more of a grey area.
I think that's a good indicator for people not that best before dates need to be ignored. But that it's important to recognise that just because it says best before does not immediately mean bad after.
That's right. Yeah, well, ultimately, we don't want to have any health issues that come up from eating foods that are beyond their safety limits. But we want to also be a little more reflective, I guess, and looking at the products, even if it's beyond the best before date, can we smell it? Can we do some sort of assessment to see whether or not it's still good?
Awesome. Okay, another question I had for you was regarding people's perception of food waste. I feel like there's some sort of disconnect between the food being wasted and people understanding that it's also money wasted.
So there's some social biases that kind of come into play here. In one study, when they asked people how much food they wasted, there was a tendency to underreport the amount by 40%. How does that happen? Well, there are a couple of things at play here. Part of it is that we're reluctant to see ourselves as someone who wastes food, we recognise that there's value in food. So that guilt, that embarrassment, maybe that shame that we feel about wasting food, we kind of try to suppress that and we just there's that disconnect as a result. But on top of that, we also live in a society where some degree of waste is normalised. Things like best before dates, things like food safety issues. Um, we live in a culture of abundance where you know, we have a lot of food available year round, and of course, the access I agree with you the access is a different question, but the food is there. So throwing out a bag of lettuce in most cases means you can still buy another one the next day, there's not that scarcity element that we used to have.
So what we've done in our research group is we've looked at the amount of food wasted among families, and then we try to quantify it in different ways. So we've tried to look at the economic, the environmental and health impacts of this food waste. So in our study, we found the average household wasted about $18 worth of avoidable food a week, all the way up to $30 a week in some of the high wasting households. But that might not resonate as much with some people. So then we've looked at the health and the environmental impacts as well, which for people with different motivations that might resonate more. And that might be an extra layer of understanding that they apply to the topic, which helps them to contextualise and become more aware and invested in reducing food waste.
So I mean, I don't know if that totally answered your question, because I do agree. It's this weird paradox where we wouldn't waste money on other things. But yet, food waste is something that, really we're seeing that and I think also, it's just these competing priorities. I think, when we look at food, we've, of course, we're motivated to save some money and, but more than that, sometimes we're motivated to have choice, and to have enough food and fresh food, and to have the flexibility to go out and eat with your friends on Friday night, if you want to, even though that means wasting some leftovers. So there are competing priorities as well in our day to day lives, that mean that that economic burden of wasting food might not be as high on our priority list, let's say,
Okay, we've talked a lot about household food waste, and families and individual strategies that you can do as a consumer to minimise throwing things out or planning more appropriately. One thing I struggle with sometimes, when you zoom out on the problem, I have a hard time feeling as though my actions are making a significant difference. And I feel like that is parallel to, in a lot of issues. In climate change people that take individual actions to reduce their environmental impact, others can argue and say, well, you buying one less plastic water bottle, in the grand scheme of things, is not making a difference? And so do you think that's a part of the contributing reason to why people don't place as much value on food waste?
Yeah, it could be a question of lack of awareness, and making those connections between, you know, fearing that a couple small actions on your part aren't going to make a difference in the grand scheme of things. And, to some extent too, I think we make excuses like that to justify our behaviour. So sure, it could be at play. But I think what's important to consider, also, when we talk about food waste is, the last thing we want to do is make people feel guilty about it. I don't think pushing a negative message is going to do anything to help the problem. So I even hesitate to say that it's an excuse, because I think that is a little bit of a blaming dialogue. So when we're talking about food waste, we really want to be framing it in a positive way. And in an empowering way that made people feel like they can make a difference.
Right, which is where I feel like this cookbook comes in beautifully. Me just reading through it seems so empowering. It's like, wow, I have so much ability as an individual consumer to control my actions and to reuse food and repurpose it and share it with my friends. And I only cook for myself right now. But as a family, I feel like that's a really cool undertaking as a family to try and make this collaborative effort and use resources like this cookbook to reduce your household food waste.
Yeah, and something that's great about this resource is that it's available online, and it's free. So you can go onto the website, you can download a PDF for free. And it's also got links to other resources, which we hope will support people and whichever ways that they feel like they need a little bit of extra support.
Right, and could you provide the website where people can find that cookbook and download it?
Yeah, so if you go to guelphfamilyhealthstudy.com/cookbooks, you'll get to a full page of family friendly cookbooks. At the top, you'll see the new Rock What You've Got: Recipes for Preventing Food Waste, if you just click on that you can download it and save onto your computer.
Awesome. And I think that's so fantastic that such a rich resource with so much information is free and accessible for anyone to use.
Yeah, I think that's an important part of this for sure.
Okay, and just one last question. Personally, being involved in this cookbook, do you have like a favourite recipe or a favourite food waste tip or something that you think has really transformed your food waste journey?
Yeah, since starting to study food waste about two years ago, now, I have become so conscious of my food waste, and I will admit freely here, I still waste food. And I think about it and I study it and I have all these resources available and I know that it's there. But I think that makes me feel more empathetic about it because I know that it's challenging and I know there's a lot that goes into trying to prevent food waste. But I've started to feel a great sense of satisfaction when I repurpose something or I use up all of something. So in terms of a particular recipe, I love soups that is my absolute go to. So there's a really great one pot wonder soup in the recipe book that basically it's a coconut Thai broth. And then you can just throw in veggies that you have, and tofu and things like that whatever you have on hand. So that's one of my favourites.
Awesome. And do you kind of outline what you hope people take away from this cookbook? And then also, your future endeavours are in terms of food waste?
Yeah. So the next step is to, of course, we are academics. So we have to test the efficacy of this tool, right. So we've already started planning for a study that's going to test the feasibility and acceptability of this toolkit. So while we acknowledge that it's a great resource, and of course, we have some bias there, because we, we were the ones who created it. So we think that it's really useful. But we want to see whether consumers think the same. So we want to test it with them and see if it will actually impact food waste generation, and also whether or not they like it, is it something that they found was useful? So that's the next step is to test it. So we're going to do a small pilot study to test the feasibility and the acceptability of this tool. And also whether or not it had an impact on food waste. And then from there, I mean, hopefully we'll find a positive result. And then it will be trying to implement it on a broader scale and really get some feedback as to what aspects are working really well for people and what places that we can provide more support, and more instruction on how they can implement those skills and those tools on their day to day basis.
Awesome. Well, thank you so much for joining us, Molly. We've really taken a lot away from your Rock What You've Got Cookbook and your previous experience. So thank you so much for joining us.
Yeah, thanks for having me.
Wow, what a great insight from Molly.
I agree. I think an important takeaway is that we can all play a role in reducing household food waste, but the key being realistic, incremental changes to our behaviour. Personally, my goal is to download the Rock What You've Got Cookbook and try one new recipe every month, incorporating food scraps that I otherwise wouldn't be tempted to use. Evan, do you have any new food waste goals after hearing from Molly?
Absolutely. As a busy family of five, we go through a lot of groceries each week. However, I know I can do a better job of making a grocery list before shopping to ensure I don't over purchase, or buy things that we may already have.
You have been listening to the Feeding 9 Billion podcast. To learn more about food security, or to incorporate food security into your classroom, please visit our website at feeding9billion.com. This podcast is supported in part by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the Canada Research Chair programme.