Food waste spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic, but there is hope

Non-profit organizations are helping address the problem

Display of large number of freshly made batch of sweets at Serano Bakery. Haider Ali/ Toronto Observer
A large number of freshly made batch of sweets on at Serano Bakery in Toronto. Food waste has generally increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, but there are ways to address it. (Haider Ali/ Toronto Observer) 

James Chisamore carries out his daily tasks as a fridge manager at a warehouse, ordering shipments of food in bulk, counting inventory, and the most heart-wrenching part — throwing away food, essentially wasting it to make room for new stock.

One day, his workplace’s basement had immense amounts of mayonnaise, all expired, and all waiting to be discarded.

“We had more stuff taking up space in the basement that was expired,” he said over Zoom.

There was far more space occupied with expired things and items awaiting return for credit than actual products that could be stocked and not thrown out, he said.

Food wastage is an overlooked issue, often tossed aside, but is becoming more concerning as the pandemic has brought about more of it in households and restaurants across Toronto.

WATCH | How the pandemic affected food waste:

A study from Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Agriculture suggests Canadian households may be wasting around 13.5 per cent more food since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020. Have other food-related industries experienced more food wastage since the beginning of the pandemic too? 

Addressing the issue

When COVID-19 was initially spreading in March 2020, Chisamore worked at a warehouse as a produce fridge manager where he regulated and managed food shipments that went in and out. Many people were buying all they could see, especially junk food, he said.

Chisamore fears most of it ended up in the garbage because people were buying so much excess.

Before his warehouse job, he worked full-time at a Toronto grocery store. He says he didn’t last there very long, mainly because of how much food the place threw out.

James Chisamore talks openly on a lack of management interest in reducing in food wastage on Zoom. (Haider Ali/ Toronto Observer)

“My initial question to my boss at that job was like, ‘How do you handle food waste?’ Chisamore said. “Which (my boss) essentially shrugged off.”

“They just threw everything in the dumpster, and it was every day, carts and carts, and was disgusting.” 

Restaurant waste also a concern

Restaurants, in particular, have found it much more difficult to manage food as COVID-19 spread and lockdowns have resulted in the industry bleeding more revenue as it faces inflation. Food prices shot up to six to seven per cent.

Brittanny Belanger, a civil engineer-in-training and founder of the environmental organization Earthub, aims to keep items out of landfills for reuse. Prior to that, she has worked in the restaurant industry for eight years. She says that seeing all the food that is being thrown out is not environmentally friendly.

“In the restaurant, you’re just automatically scraping your plates into the garbage and there’s no compost,” she said.

She said, there has been a significant spike in food wastage — particularly when restaurants were only able to provide take-out meals.

“Say they got started on the milkshake and put in the wrong flavor, instead of just dumping the ice cream, they would throw the whole cup in the garbage,” said Belanger. It was the same appetizers and entrees, she said.

Brittanny Belanger, founder of Earthub, discusses food wastage issues on Zoom. (Haider Ali/Toronto Observer)

Management and staff emphasized the discarding of food without hesitation and it eventually became commonplace.

“Obviously you want a healthy environment in your restaurant. You don’t want contamination,” Belanger said. “But as soon as COVID happened, if something touches something else, the cook is just automatically going to throw it (out).”

Call to action

There is an ongoing effort to prevent, or better manage, food wastage for businesses in the food industry. Second Harvest, Canada’s largest charitable food rescue organization, aims to reduce the environmental impact.

“Our mission is to build this recovery network for surplus food as well as make sure it gets to organizations that can use it in their program,” said Madison Maguire, head of operations.

“Seeing organizations have to adjust to another lockdown and things like that, it’s very hard to predict inventory.”

Dalhousie University study’s survey suggests “different home-based behaviour patterns” were triggered since 2020.

Second Harvest not only reaches out to restaurants, and vice versa, to provide better food management, but also to collect surplus food that would have been thrown out. The organization distributes the food it rescues to non-profits and summer programs for children, where it can be eaten instead of wasted.

“We accelerated since 2020 and now been in every province and territory, so we’ve also seen an increase in improvements,” said Maguire.

Ongoing efforts are being made by a few organizations for better conserving, whilst at the same time it is clear that there are individuals and groups that also share the same goal — to reduce food waste.

Chisamore suggests workplaces should give a few items to staff and members, but prior to them taking the items they should first sign a waiver for legality purposes to hold themselves accountable for their choice.

“So if they get sick, it’s not your problem, but this is just so you’re not throwing everything into the trash,” he said.

“And also considering even, just being more conscious of your ordering.”

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Posted: Apr 20 2022 1:00 pm
Filed under: Business Food News