Photo by Tori Silvera.
Photo by Tori Silvera.

Were you amidst the crowd that filled downtown Peterborough from January 23-25 for the ReFrame Peterborough International Film Festival? If you weren’t, then boy oh boy, you missed out on some great films and discussion.

The highlight of my weekend was attending KWIC’s World Issues Café: “Rummaging Through the Myth: The True Cost of Food Waste” on January 24. The Café’s special guest, Dr. Wayne Roberts, spoke about an issue that he says has arose from 0-60: food waste.

The former manager of the Toronto Food Policy Council from 2000-2010, a citizen body of 30 food activists and experts that is widely recognized for its innovative approach to food security, Dr. Roberts knows his stuff when it comes to food. As a food policy analyst and author, he is known for his book titles such as The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food (2008) and Real Food for a Change (1999). He has won a variety of awards regarding food policy and sustainable living, such as the Canadian Environment Award (2002), the Canadian Eco-Hero Award (2008), and University of Toronto’s Arbor Award in 2011—just to name a few. Needless to say, I was excited to hear what Dr. Roberts had to say on an issue that is very real and very dire in North America.

The World Issues Café took place at Showplace Peterborough, in partnership with the Saturday night ReFrame feature film: Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story (2014). A Canadian documentary, Just Eat It, follows Vancouver filmmakers, Jen Rustemeyer and Grant Baldwin, on their six month challenge to live off only discarded food, revealing the disturbing truth of unnecessary food waste. The film managed to remain light-hearted and entertaining, all while being eye-opening. As you can just imagine, this film set the stage perfectly for Dr. Robert’s talk.

One permeating message from the evening was that 40% of food that is produced is wasted. Referring to the language we use, Dr. Roberts suggested that we stay away from terms such as food “waste” and food “problems”: we don’t have a food problem; we have a human problem. He explained that waste is a verb, not a noun, and that waste is not found in nature. Therefore, food waste is something that we humans need to address, as we are the ones wasting. With the annual cost of food waste in Canada reaching $31B, and $407B globally, Roberts explained that it is not the waste problem that we need to talk about, but the waste opportunity. A scientific journal published last month says that there is an estimated 5 trillion pieces of plastic waste in our oceans (weighing in at 250 000 tons), in which 1/3 is from food. So, food waste permeates the entire span of the food system, and Roberts noted, “To put all emphasis on the consumer and not the whole system or government policy is a dis-service”.

It’s interesting to note that with food and food waste, you can go from doing actions that are no good, to doing actions that are good—you can move across the whole spectrum of food waste; essentially, this isn’t a lost cause, and we can improve the food waste situation.

When looking at the opportunities in food waste, Dr. Roberts explained that there are three main reasons why food is so fascinating: firstly, there is the individual engagement element. Dr. Roberts calls on us to return to soups, stews and shepherd’s pie. These recipes hold the potential to save food scraps and foods that are on the way out. Have limp celery? Stick it in a soup. Cooking wisely can eliminate waste. Shopping at the farmer’s market is another thing we can do at the individual level, as well as shopping AFTER dinner and meals, not before. How many times have you gone into a grocery store for milk and walked out of the store with six bags of food? I’ve done it—it’s something I’ve got to work on.

Secondly, there is the group/community element. Roberts emphasized that composting is done best at the community level, which ties into the third aspect: the government and policy element. Quite often, municipalities are stuck with the food waste bill. “If we are paying someone to put it in a landfill, why aren’t we paying someone to compost it at the community level?” mused Roberts. There is a lot of potential for municipal and community composting projects, and it just isn’t happening.

There was an opportunity during the Café for Dr. Roberts to answer questions from the public. One particular question that stood out was from a gentleman asking, “How effective is the green bin program in Toronto, and how does Peterborough get one?” It was a question that I had always wondered myself—while I currently have a composter in my backyard, I didn’t when I was living in an apartment, and I found myself longing for one of those green bins that dot the curbs of the GTA. I had never really questioned their effectiveness.

Roberts explained the Green Bin program is ineffective; the waste that goes into the bins is not separated. So you’ve got vegetable scraps, coffee grinds, meat bits, diapers and cat litter all being put in the same bin. I’d never stick all that stuff in my backyard composter, so why would I assume that the Green Bins are properly composting this waste? You can look on the City of Toronto’s website to see what can and cannot go in the Green Bins. Dr. Robert’s point is that the Green Bin program is not cradle to cradle. Unless all of these organic products are separated, then nothing is breaking down properly and returning to the soil. So, long story short, Peterborough shouldn’t bother with that program, but should instead look into community composting, where food waste actually breaks down and can return its nutrients to the soil.

With this new knowledge about food opportunity, what do we do now? Dr. Roberts shared the key to communication: as seen in Just Eat It, to get people engaged, you don’t tell them something; you show them. Show them the waste, and let them draw their own conclusions. And you should do so in the form of a story. By sharing your own story of what you have learned, rather than standing on a pedestal saying thou shall do this, people are more likely to make connections.

If we are going to fix our broken food system that wastes so much, we need to share our stories, be conscious of our purchases, and go to the farmer’s market and buy that wonky-shaped potato that nobody wants. Roberts discusses the concept of a ‘circular system’ in terms of food, and noted that in 2014, satellite images suggest that the majority of agricultural production is now within 20 km of cities.

In this world that is wonderfully moving to urban agriculture, we have a lot of potential to change our food system for the better. There are wonderful models in European Union of sustainable living, but no one has the full solution—yet. We just need to act individually, collectively, and make our voices heard to policy makers.