FoodSharing Ottawa’s Addressing Canada’s Food Waste Problem

By Olga Tkachuk

As the debate continues to rage in regards to the Ontario government’s consideration of a disposal ban on organic waste as part of its Strategy for a Waste-Free Ontario, one message is getting less emphasis than it should. At the very root of the problem is the fact that we simply throw out too much perfectly edible food, and a local volunteer organization called FoodSharing Ottawa is trying to do something about it.

At the current rate of generating approximately 12 million tons of waste annually in this province alone, we are poised to run out of existing landfill capacity within 20 years. Even with green bin use, a significant portion of what ends up in those landfills consists of food and organic waste. At a conservative estimate from 2014 that does not include government institutions such as schools, prisons, and hospitals, Canadians as a whole were found to waste $31 billion worth of food annually. Ontario’s share of that is $12 billion, equal to 3.6 tonnes of food and organic waste, over 60% of which ends up in a landfill. 47% of that waste occurs at household levels, while the rest is shared at every other stage of food production and distribution. And while individuals are the biggest culprits in terms of what gets tossed, organizations and businesses recycle far less organic waste than households, sending more of it to landfills.

The economic, social and environmental implications of these staggering numbers are manifold. The monetary costs amount to $1456 worth of food that is thrown out by an average Canadian household every year, while the waste that takes place before the products reach the consumer drives up the overall cost of the groceries. This has the greatest effect on those Canadians in one out of eight households who are already faced with issues of food insecurity, and the number of people with inadequate access to food is on the rise as costs of living continue to increase. Of course added to that is the financial cost of disposing of organic waste, which is both a monetary, as well as an environmental problem, since the generated greenhouse gases, including a significant amount methane, add to Ontario’s emissions.

And this is where Foodsharing Ottawa comes in. It’s a community of volunteers who aim to reduce Ottawa’s food waste. Working with both members of the food industry such as farmers, grocery stores, restaurants and bakeries, as well as individuals, the organization takes food that would otherwise end up in the garbage, including products that have passed their ‘best before’ date, but remain safe for consumption. It is then redistributed to charities, other non-profits, and the FoodSharing network.

As per Ontario’s Donation of Food Act, there are no legal risks to businesses that donate their food, even if it has passed the ‘best before’ date. Where there is a large volume of donations, volunteers will sort through what is salvageable and what isn’t, saving businesses time. Disposal costs for those who donate go down due to decreasing volumes of waste that have to be picked up by the city. The group is also more than happy to advertise these businesses that help reduce the city’s environmental impact, and contribute to the community by donating their excess products. In some cases, tax receipts can also be arranged for the donors.

And since almost half of all food and organic waste occurs at the level of individual households, a Facebook group called Share it – Don’t toss it has been set up as a conduit between those who find themselves with a surplus, and those who are more than happy to take it. People post a photo of items that they no longer need or want to use, and other members of the network come to pick it up. Occasionally a volunteer is even happy to deliver the items to a member with mobility issues.

The great thing about FoodSharing is that everybody wins. Thousands of pounds of perfectly edible food are diverted from landfills, resulting in less greenhouse gas emissions. Business costs are reduced for owners willing to help out, and individuals participate in creating an immediate positive impact on their community. The end result is that more people have access to foodstuffs, including healthy produce that would otherwise become costly trash, and our practices become more sustainable.