In the media 05/12/2016

It seems like a marriage made in heaven. Eliminate the vast amount of food waste in our society by giving it to the poor and hungry. No more hunger. No more waste. At least that’s what advocates for food-waste-to-the-poor schemes will have us believe. Here at home, MP Ruth-Ellen Brosseau's private member’s bill, C-231, Fight Against Food Waste Act, will get a third reading in the House of Commons in the coming weeks.

But this is a relationship doomed before it even begins. That’s because this bill and other initiatives like it fail to address the real root causes of hunger and food waste. In fact, by conflating and confusing these issues, it makes it harder to develop meaningful and effective strategies to address both of these growing problems.

Simply put, food waste will never be able to address hunger because hunger isn’t about a lack of food. It’s about a lack of income. People are food insecure because they can’t afford to eat.

Food waste diversion strategies aimed at the poor don’t fix the food waste problem either. Waste isn’t about not having enough mouths to feed. It’s about inefficiencies and bureaucracy in the food system that see crops tilled under and lost in the production process, other crops that are overproduced as a result of antiquated agricultural policy and incentive programs, a retail system that has overabundance built into its operation model, and individual consumers who buy food with the best intentions, only to have it spoil in the back of the fridge.  

There’s a lot of work to be done on all these fronts. But if we’re going to make any progress on any of these issues, we need to think upstream.

If we want to stop millions of Canadians from going to bed hungry every night, we need to ensure that they have the ability to access food. That means shaking up our outdated notions of who is going hungry in this country. We have a growing population of working poor in Canada whose wages do not cover basic necessities. The most recent findings from the University of Toronto’s PROOF Food Insecurity Policy Research program show that the majority of food insecure households in Canada rely on wages or salaries from employment. Inadequate wages, shrinking social assistance rates, meagre pensions, illness and disability are at the heart of food insecurity in this country. All of this has nothing to do with the fact that we throw away 30-40% of the food we produce.

Which is not to say that food waste isn’t a problem. In fact, it’s a massive issue that requires our attention. The food that we throw out unnecessarily gobbles up resources, including energy, water, land, and labour to the tune of $100 billion each year. And the food that ends up rotting in landfills fuels climate change by generating 20% of Canada’s methane gas emissions. But this waste isn’t concentrated at the retail level, where food waste plans are focused. Waste happens across the chain from field to fridge: 34% of it is generated before food reaches the store, and a whopping 47% of it happens in our homes. That means that only 10% of all food waste in Canada is created at the retail level, and another 9% by restaurants. If we want to tackle this monumental problem, we need a whole-system approach – from taxing waste to public education on reducing waste in our own kitchens.

But let’s not conflate a food waste strategy with a poverty reduction strategy. It’s destructive to do so. Are we saying that the poor amongst us are only worthy of the castoffs of the industrial food system—the majority of which is unhealthy food, laden with fat, sugar, and salt, which increases the risk of diet-related illnesses? There’s no question we can and must do better than this as a society.

When food banks were first established in Canada forty years ago, they were intended to act as a stopgap. But the problem of food insecurity in Canada didn’t stop, and the gap has only grown bigger. Since food banks opened their doors in 1970s, hunger has only gone in one direction: up. Today more than four million people in this country are unsure about when they’ll eat next or skip meals so their kids can eat. Diverting food waste to fill the shelves of a growing number of food banks can’t and won’t stop the problem of hunger in Canada. It makes for good PR for the companies that donate, but does little for the people it’s intended to help.

Similarly, the new schemes about food waste—such as National Zero Waste Council’s push to create tax incentives for companies who donate their waste to non-profits working with the poor—benefit the companies first and foremost. They do little to encourage real change and actually hijack productive discussions about how to tackle poverty.

Instead of incentivizing waste by dangling corporate tax credits, we ought to support employees fighting for fair, livable wages. And let’s put those same tax dollars into building the social infrastructure required to ensure no one will ever again need to rely on someone else’s leftovers for sustenance. It’s time that politicians, backed by citizen voices, talk about justice and equity. It’s time to create real, long lasting solutions to poverty and hunger, policies that bring us together, rather than divide us as citizens.