Canadians discard 555,000 bananas each day, according to the National Zero Waste Council. Photo by Mickey Conlon

Cathy Majtenyi: Yes, today we wasted 555,000 bananas

  • February 11, 2022

Sparse and empty shelves are becoming the norm in most grocery stores.

Bare food shelves may be alarming to those who have not seen such a sight before. This unease is sparking doomsday food insecurity scenarios and pandemic conspiracy theories in some quarters.

Rather than getting caught up in the panic, we should view empty shelves as a powerful metaphor and motivator to address a long-running serious problem: our incredibly huge food waste at the corporate and household levels.

The numbers are damning. According to the 2019 Second Harvest report “The Avoidable Crisis of Food Waste,” 58 per cent of all food produced in Canada — 35.5 million tonnes — is lost or wasted, at a cost of $49 billion, estimated to be enough to feed every Canadian for five months.

Waste occurs in all areas of the food process, from farming, manufacturing, production and distribution, to retail and consumption at the household level.

The Second Harvest’s 2019 report shows that more than half of the total food waste occurs during the processing and production phases. Produce that doesn’t meet high standards is rejected; shortages of farm labour, low prices paid to farmers and surpluses from faulty forecasting may result in crops rotting in the field; supply chain inefficiencies such as ineffective packaging processes and labelling result in food being destroyed.

But a significant proportion of food waste — 21 per cent, or 2.38 million tonnes per year — occurs at the household level. Avoidable food loss and waste costs each Canadian household around $1,766 each year, says the report.

A 2017 report by the National Zero Waste Council says that 63 per cent of the food Canadians throw away could have been eaten. “To put that into perspective, every day in Canada we waste 470,000 heads of lettuce, 1,200,000 tomatoes, 2,400,000 potatoes, 750,000 loaves of bread, 1,225,000 apples, 555,000 bananas, 1,000,000 cups of milk and 450,000 eggs.”

The Second Harvest report identifies three main behaviours that account for the food we waste at home: we discard food that has reached the “best before” date; we don’t eat leftovers; and we buy too much food that we end up tossing out.

On that first point, many people confuse “best-before” and “expiration” dates. Best-before dates merely indicate that the product, if properly stored, will be of high quality until the specified date. “Best-before dates are about food quality and not food safety,” says a Canadian government public advisory.   

Expiry dates “are required on certain foods that have specific nutritional compositions that could falter after the determined expiration date,” says the Canadian Institute of Food Safety. Expiry dates are required for infant formula, meal replacements, nutritional supplements, formulated liquid diets and other foods sold in a pharmacy.

While expired foods should never be eaten, “you can buy and eat foods after the best-before date has passed. However, foods that are likely to spoil should be stored properly, and they should be eaten as quickly as possible,” says the government’s public advisory.

One way to use up older vegetables, cheese, sour cream, yogurt — whatever we have in our refrigerator or cupboard — is to turn to the Internet. Type in a list of seemingly unrelated ingredients and the word “recipes” and see what pops up. Cook those food items rather than throw them away. Some foods past the best-before date are actually ideal for certain recipes: overripe bananas make great muffins and bread.

Similarly, if we don’t want to eat leftovers several times in a row, we can freeze them or use components of the meal in other dishes. Witness the array of casserole, soup and sandwich recipes posted online for leftover turkey following Thanksgiving. We also need to change our mindset about leftovers being inferior to freshly cooked meals.

It’s vital that we be intentional in our meal planning. Mapping out breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack menus in advance guides us in purchasing specific amounts of specific ingredients that will be used up soon, saves us money and can improve the nutritional value of what we eat. Be wary of buying in bulk or stockpiling. There are  many strategies to reduce or avoid food waste.

Sustainably managing our food supply is an important way to be responsible stewards of the resources and gifts God has given us. When we waste food, we are in essence disrespecting God’s bounty, we are failing in our responsibility to use God’s providence wisely. Empty grocery shelves remind us food security is not to be taken for granted and that we have a role to play to ensure that food is available to everyone.

(Majtenyi is a public relations officer specializing in research at an Ontario university.)

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