Posted in Features

$5 a Day Challenge: Food waste is killing the environment . . . and us

It’s time we force food retailers and the agriculture industry into some better practices

Image Credits: Phoebe Lim

This is the fifth post in a week-long web series that documents Kevin Rey’s experiences living off of $5 worth of food a day. Check back daily for another post.

Have you ever experienced that awful moment where you realize the majority of your fridge is filled with expired food and/or sentient mould?

Cleaning up that kind of a mess is just the worst. It makes you ask yourself all sorts of strange questions, like “How am I going to get that into the compost box?” “Will I ever be able to get the smell out of the tupperware?” and “Would throwing out my entire fridge be simpler?”

One of the upsides of buying a tiny amount of food for the week is I’ll probably eat most of it before it goes bad.

That’s definitely not the case for Canada as a whole, though. A staggering amount of food is wasted every day by steps in production, or by spoiling at home after it’s been bought. This amounts to about $31 billion per year in Canada and has knock-on effects like increasing methane produced in landfills. I was at the Vancouver Zero Waste Conference earlier this month, where food waste was a prominent issue.

The good news is that at SFU, we’re doing a lot better than we used to be. Two years after implementing a new waste-sorting system, SFU realized its goal of diverting 70 percent of solid waste from landfills.

SFU’s student environmental group Embark has also been leading the charge when it comes to preventing food waste. Along with lobbying SFU about reducing waste, they have been running a food rescue program that collects donated end-of-life produce from Nesters Market and hands it out by donation in Blusson Hall.

I’ve actually known about the food rescue program for a little while, so I gambled on there being some fruit and vegetables I could take home. For my hard-earned $0, I was able to get a few apples, a bell pepper, a tomato, a small lime, and some alien-looking fruit thing apparently called a “persimmon.”

This kind of initiative is catching on globally. In France, grocery stores are selling misshapen produce at reduced prices so they don’t get thrown out, along with an outright ban on food ending up in landfills. Italy followed earlier this year with a similar law. In North America, consumers are putting pressure on retailers like Walmart to do the same.

Along with wasting less money on food, reducing food waste has social benefits too. Food banks are starting to warm up to the fact that they could get a whole lot more food on the cheap if they invested in mobile fridges and freezers to pick it up from grocery stores. This is a colossal amount of food. There’s even a “small” network of Little Caesers restaurants in the United States donating hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of food every year.

Earlier this year, Vancouver got its first Zero Waste Market, providing an outlet for Vancouverites who want to buy exactly how much food they need with little to no packaging. I think about this every time I go to the supermarket.

As if those weren’t good enough reasons, there is also a huge benefit to combatting climate change, as a recent study showed that managing waste better could reduce emissions from agriculture by 14 percent. Just like learning to cook, reducing food waste like this has basically no downsides (so long as the food is still safe to eat).

If this whole tirade is sounding a little familiar, that’s probably because it is: Last Week Tonight, hosted by John Oliver, had a similarly bulletproof argument for reducing food waste.

On a personal level, I really want to believe that after this $35-week, I’m going to be super conscious of how much food I buy. The most likely scenario is that I’ll be good for a week or two, and then impulsively buy a bunch of random vegetables because of a Food Network video.

I think my best strategy is going to be to replicate what Embark and others are doing, except out of my own kitchen. Rather than letting my fridge become a highly efficient penicillin farm, I’ll try offering my spare food to friends or colleagues, or I could even invite people over to help me cook and eat it all.