My Depression-era mother, thrifty and smart, never wasted a scrap of food. Ignoring our constant cries of “Not leftovers, again?” Mum would recycle everything into stir-fries, soups, stews, casseroles, and the ever-popular ‘mystery meatloaf.’ School lunches produced confusion and frowns (tomato, bacon and peanut butter banana sandwich, anyone?) My mother was so averse to wasting food, she collected day-old bread and buns from bakeries for charity—as well as for our peculiar lunches. Any scraps we refused fertilized her vegetable garden. Turns out, Mum wasn’t just being frugal; she may have been unintentionally saving the planet.
Today, up to one-third of the food we make goes to waste. Canada wastes 31 million pounds of food a year. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that “food waste is the second largest category of municipal solid waste in the U.S.,” at 31 million tons. Even worse, organic matter in landfills is broken down by bacteria to produce methane which is according to the EPA, “a potent greenhouse gas (that has) a warming potential of 21 times that of carbon dioxide.” The David Suzuki Foundation posts that almost 20% of Canada’s methane emissions come from landfills. And according to Diane Regas, executive director of the Environmental Defense Fund, “About one-quarter of the climate change we’re experiencing now is actually driven by emission of methane.”
What about local food waste? Food security activist Lynn Nguyen, says a typical bakery might make twice as much baked goods as it sells on a daily basis, just to keep its shelves enticingly full to attract customers up till closing time. “You’d need a truck to cart away all the extra food at the end of a day,” says Lynn. She adds that although smaller shops might sell day-old goods at a discount, corporate businesses often have policies prohibiting perishables from being kept or even given away at the end of the day. So what happens to all those leftovers? “They all get thrown in the trash,” says Lynn.
Enter home-grown organization LeftOvers Calgary, dedicated to diverting perfectly usable, perishable food from the landfill. LeftOvers connects local bakeries, restaurants, and markets like Sidewalk Citizen, Village Ice Cream, and Sunnyside Market with service agencies like the Calgary Drop-In Centre, Calgary Interfaith Food Bank, and Inn From the Cold. Volunteers simply pick up and deliver leftover goods and produce at the end of a business day “to alleviate stress and fill kitchens (in need) with fresh food.” LeftOvers rescues close to 700 kg of food per week. Commercial vendors Cobbs Bread and Starbucks have together donated over 9,000 kg of food to date. So Calgarians get fed, waste is diverted, methane is reduced, planet is saved, right?
Not so fast. Lynn, who is also the social media coordinator with LeftOvers, cautions that food waste occurs at the farming, transportation, and processing levels, not just at the vendor. “If an apple doesn’t look like we (consumers) expect it to,” she says, “The farmer can’t sell it. It gets tossed.” If a pepper is misshapen, or a banana a bit bruised, it gets tossed long before it reaches store shelves. “What we do at LeftOvers can only fix a small part of a very large problem,” admits Lynn. But LeftOvers, winner of the 2015 Canadian Stewardship Award for Community Leadership, has ambitions beyond its basic rescue mission. Aside from growing its volunteer core, LeftOvers plans to expand to Edmonton and other cities, push for food waste legislation, and educate Calgary school children about rescuing food.
I can’t count the number of times my mother murmured, “Waste not, want not,” while repurposing leftovers. As in so many other matters, it turns out, Mum, you were right.
—Tamara has nearly mastered how to make “nail broth” udon-style, and is trying to eat all her crusts.