Food waste is (slowly) getting a facelift

Jonathan Kates

In the age of selfies and Instagram fame, it should not exactly be surprising that our reverence of appearance has trickled down to food presentation, despite the fact that this has no bearing on the food’s appearance at the other end of its life-cycle. A quick perusal of any of your social networks is likely to result in at least one (or ten) pictures of finely prepared grub that will leave you salivating and questioning your decision to eat Kraft Dinner…once again. Yet it’s worth a pause to consider that Instagram account @tastetoronto has almost 150,000 followers, with thousands of likes per picture, but the Daily Bread Food Bank (DBFB) doesn’t even have an account. Sure, hunger isn’t as sexy as stylized hamburgers and monstrous desserts, but it is just as real.

The HungerCount 2015 report published by Food Banks Canada calculated that over 850,000 Canadians use a food bank each month. In Toronto, the period of 2008-2015 saw a 12 per cent increase in food bank use, with a particularly sharp increase in the city’s inner suburbs and a decrease in the city’s core, according to the DBFB. This result is largely unsurprising when coupled with University of Toronto Social Work and Urban Planning Professor David Hulchanski’s map from his The Three Cities Within Toronto report, a comparative analysis that demonstrates the polarized income strata that have essentially created three vastly different cities within the 416 area code. The report concluded that the concentration of poverty has largely moved from the inner city to the city’s inner suburbs, referred to as “City #3”. This is entirely consistent with a report from the University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute that found many food deserts were in priority neighbourhoods, which were also located in City #3.

The overall economic trends are worrisome too; the University of Guelph’s Food Institute found that food prices are once again expected to outpace inflation, further increasing the share of income that Canadians spend on food. Newly released data from Statistics Canada came to the same conclusion: Canadians spent 3.9 per cent more on food in February 2016 than they did in the same month one year earlier. Furthermore, fresh fruit and fresh vegetables – obviously two nutritionally important parts of our diets – experienced large price increases at 14.4 per cent and 17.2 per cent, respectively, year-over-year. Aggravating the matter further, the end of 2015 saw a very weak loonie, culminating in a much-talked about New York Times exposé detailing how a pack of 6 cauliflowers was (temporarily) more expensive than a barrel of oil. The apocalypse hath cometh.

Some European countries have taken the lead on implementing highly effective policy to try and eliminate the food crises in their respective countries. For example, France just recently passed a law banning grocery stores from throwing away and intentionally spoiling food that is approaching best-buy dates, and instead they will be required to donate it to charities and food banks. Managers of supermarkets that measure more than 400m2 will be required to sign contracts with charities or face a fine of €3,750. It’s said that just a 15 per cent increase in donated food will result in 10 million more meals a year.

Meanwhile, Italy passed a law similar to France’s, but instead of threatening financial penalties, lawmakers went the other way, providing tax incentives for any business that wishes to donate, so long as this intention is declared in advance. And a new grocery store in Denmark, WeFood, is exclusively stocked with food waste. If you think that would deter customers, think again; lineups wrapped around the corner after the store first opened.

Despite a lack of official policy here in Canada, Loblaw is the first company to take a real stand against food waste caused by “ugly” food. In early 2015, the company launched its Naturally Imperfect program, discounting undersized or blemished apples and potatoes by up to 30 per cent off the regular price at locations in Ontario and Quebec. The program proved so popular that those same locations recently announced they would expand their discounted repertoire to also include peppers, onions, and mushrooms.

Off-brand Loblaw retailers in other provinces announced expansionary programs too. Real Canadian Superstore, Your Independent Superstore, No Frills, and Atlantic Superstore locations in B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, the Atlantic provinces, and Yukon rolled out their own versions of the program at locations starting earlier this month, mostly focusing around apples and peppers.

Unsurprisingly, the program’s popularity and the weak dollar have gone hand in hand, as Loblaw executive chairman Galen Weston explained in a February 2016 conference call to shareholders. The weak dollar led Loblaw’s customers to include relatively cheaper produce items in their shopping carts, and also to shop at lower priced retailers like Real Canadian Superstore, which Loblaw also operates. This is also in line with a consumer survey that found that 62.1 per cent of those who reduced or eliminated beef –  usually a pricey item – from their shopping carts in the last year did so for economic reasons.

Canadians should also keep appearance in mind and not just cost. When food is wasted, sometimes due to its “ugliness”, that costs the grocer, who is likely to download the cost onto consumers. Consumers should have a keener awareness for the supply chain value of the food they buy and, even if those products are not offered at a discount, buy them anyways.

All the evidence shows that Canadians, on the whole, will change their shopping habits with the right incentives in place, especially in times of economic turmoil. The Canadian government should look to their European colleagues and one of the nation’s largest grocery chains as stewards for a revolution in food waste policy. Goodness knows it’s time.

Jonathan Kates is a is a 2017 Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy & Governance. He holds a bilingual Bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Sociology from Glendon, and his areas of interests are education, social policy, cities, and government accountability. His favourite food group is pizza.

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