Food Insecurity

Canada’s food-waste problem is out of control. Here’s how to break the cycle.

Sixty per cent of Canada’s food is thrown out every year. Together, we could drive that number down to zero.

(Illustration by Pete Ryan)

In 2016, my sister, Paula, was working as a chef for a catering company in Toronto. One night after an event, she called me and said, “I just threw out $4,000 dollars worth of food.” Initially, I laughed in disbelief, then she continued: “My boss stood over my shoulder as I shovelled it into the trash. Then I walked home past a bunch of unhoused people—people who need that food the most. I feel awful.”

I’d always hated the idea of wasting food, but after that call, I started reading obsessively on the topic. I came across a National Geographic article, which explained that when food stacks up in landfills, it emits methane, a substance 25 times more damaging than carbon dioxide. If food waste were a country, it would be the third-leading contributor to greenhouse gas emissions behind the U.S. and China. I thought, I’m 26 and educated—how is this the first time I’m hearing this? It’s not just cars and planes and factories; it’s also food.

At the time, I was working as a financial adviser. As the son of two entrepreneurs, I knew that, at some point, I’d start my own company, ideally one with a positive environmental impact. I dug into the numbers on food waste—at farms, restaurants and other food retailers—to really understand the scope of the problem. As part of my research, I also visited a grocery store in Toronto’s Liberty Village neighbourhood. I spoke with the manager, who admitted to throwing out boneless, skinless chicken breasts (the good stuff) once they were within three days of their best-before dates. I thought, If I could receive a notification that told me when food was going off at stores near me—and buy it discountedI would definitely use that. Eight years later, that’s exactly what my company, Flashfood, does. Once clerks pull food from shelves, users can buy it through our app and pick it up from one of nearly 2,000 fridges across North America, usually at half-price. We’ve diverted 91 million pounds of food from landfills to date.

With all the resources Canada has—financial and otherwise—our food-waste problem shouldn’t be anywhere near as big as it is: 60 per cent of the food we produce is thrown out every year, a third of which is edible at the time it’s tossed. On average, Canadians spend more than $1,700 annually on unused food, even as grocery prices are 20 per cent higher than just two years ago. Food banks are seeing 60 per cent more monthly visitors now than in 2022. Given that waste is generated at many points from farm to store to table, there won’t be one way to break the food-waste chain, but many.

READ: I work in a B.C. food bank. We’re serving triple the number of people we used to.

Let’s start with consumers. Many don’t see our supply chain for the modern-day miracle it is. It’s definitely not perfect, but it’s possible to buy passion fruit in Alberta in the middle of February! Fruits and vegetables degrade the more they’re handled, but somehow, they manage to get from a truck to a store to a refrigerator looking as good as new. Even with factors like global warming in play, many shoppers expect their produce to be unblemished or they will not purchase it. To keep shelves full and samples available, retailers need to have baked goods like cakes and cookies—which go stale fast—made fresh around the clock. These standards mean that, for grocers, waste has just become another line item in their budgets. It doesn’t have to be this way.

It’s smart to prioritize convenience, but small behavioural changes will mean less food gets shorted. It might be as simple as not always reaching for the item at the back with the longest-possible shelf life. Instead, shoppers could choose one with a closer best-before date and plan to cook it sooner. (This usually comes with the added benefit of markdowns.) It’s also worth mentioning that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency grades the appearance of most produce along one or more tiers—“Canada No. 1” being the most appealing. Many larger grocers even require that their fruits and vegetables meet extra specifications, like size or colour, to appeal to customers. At smaller discount chains, these regulations mean that the quality is still incredibly high. The items might just look a bit different. We also need to improve access to food that’s no longer shelvable for people in need. All across Canada, provincial good samaritan acts protect grocery retailers and food-service businesses, like restaurants and catering companies, from liability risks if they redistribute food in good faith. These laws have been in effect for decades, yet many companies still toss food every night.

READ: I’ve worked hard my whole life and I can’t afford food

As an alternative, owners could build connections with community organizations who accept donations. Delivery logistics can be complicated and expensive, so it’s unlikely that grocery stores will send out their own trucks anytime soon. Instead, local stakeholders could coordinate regular pickups at stores. Loblaws, one of Flashfood’s Canadian partners, is already doing this—the company has matched each of its stores with a local “food-recovery partner.” (In 2022, this program generated seven million kilograms in food donations.) The Daily Bread Food Bank also moves food effectively, as does Second Harvest, a food-rescue charity in the GTA whose drivers are full-time employees. Volunteer-operated food pantries are incredible waste reducers. Food Not Bombs Edmonton, for example, has a dedicated budget to fill a community fridge with items free for the taking.

As much as everyone feels guilty throwing out food—and I believe they do—financial incentives are what really push people to waste less. It’s true for grocery execs, too. It starts from the top—that is, making sustainability a strategic objective. It’s not enough to have solar panels at your head office; mitigating waste needs to be someone’s job. Perhaps, retailers who meet waste-reduction targets could receive bonuses.

Government oversight would help things along, too. In 2016, faced with rising rates of homelessness and unemployment, the French Senate made it illegal for large supermarkets to toss unsold food that’s fit for consumption. Food bank donations are up 20 per cent. Here in Canada, a subsidy could be given, not just to grocers, but to consumer packaged goods companies and smaller producers who cut waste in a tangible way—as in, x percentage by x time. The trickle-down effect of that will necessarily be more food for more Canadians at more reasonable prices—even for free.

In the short term, the money argument against food waste is often the most powerful. People aren’t always thinking about climate change; they’re thinking about how they’ll afford to feed their family. (A $100 grocery bill might buy you 60 per cent of the load size of two years ago.) In the long term, though, the environmental impact of minimizing food waste is huge: eight per cent of all greenhouse gases produced globally are due to preventable food waste. Lowering those levels is why I started my company in the first place.

Flashfood has been in business for under a decade, and I’m amazed at the progress the food industry has made already. Some grocery chains now operate on-site anaerobic digesters that break down unsold food—up to 2,000 pounds a day—into compost and gas byproducts that can be turned into electricity to power their stores. With the tools out there now, by 2030, Canada could easily bring its food-waste metrics much closer to zero. Like food, that goal isn’t just a nice-to-have. It’s a necessity.

Josh Domingues is the founder and CEO of Flashfood.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.