Dining with the Devil: Is rescuing food waste for schools a short-term solution to a long-term problem? by Aaren Topley

Across Canada, 40 per cent of the food we produce for human consumption goes to waste. Let that sink in. Some grocery chains are trying to stop that squander. On an average day, each of the eleven Thrifty Foods stores on southern Vancouver Island now donates 300 pounds of fresh produce that would have otherwise been thrown out—collectively, the weight of an SUV.

The average adult eats about five pounds of food a day. This means one grocery store could feed another 60 people per day with what it discards. With at least 18,500 people who do not have access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs for a healthy active life in Greater Victoria—many of them children—it is easy to conclude that this food should go to people who really need it.

Meanwhile, “food rescue” organizations are popping up to redirect this fruit and vegetable “waste” to those in need. These organizations take fresh fruits and vegetables that may have blemishes or need to be replaced by new stock. Some organizations work with farmers or have fruit tree projects where they “glean” local food that may go to waste.

Two organizations “rescue” and “glean” food in Victoria. Made up of almost 50 non-profits and with funding from the Victoria Foundation and the Rotary Club, the Food Share Network works with the Mustard Seed to collect and redistribute food from grocery stores such as Thrifty Foods, Country Grocer, and Whole Foods. LifeCycles Project Society harvests fruit from backyards that would go to waste and works with farms to pick vegetables that don’t have a market or are too small or misshapen to sell.

Fernwood NRG is one of the community centres that receives food from the Food Share Network and LifeCycles. By taking both rescued and locally gleaned food and building the storage and distribution systems to handle it, Fernwood is feeding more people in the neighbourhood than ever. Alex Harned, food access coordinator at Fernwood NRG, is in charge revamping Fernwood’s food system. While these are exciting developments, Harned calls rescued food a “blind alley.”

“These projects make us think we are leading to a sustainable food system, but they create more isolation by not growing the local food system alongside them,” warns Harned, who recently completed her master’s degree in strategic leadership towards sustainability at Sweden’s Blekinge Institute of Technology with a focus on food waste. “There are people who are hungry and need food now, and there is food waste that we need to stop from going into the landfill. But it doesn’t address the root cause of the problem of both food waste and food insecurity.”

That root cause she’s talking about? The industrial food system’s overproduction and reliance on cheap globalized labour. Many grocery stores even receive a tax credit and avoid dumping fees by donating the food.

As the rescue and gleaning projects grow, Canadian schools have become one of their playgrounds. This fall, three schools in Greater Victoria—including Victoria High School in Fernwood—began a pilot project. The schools offer a place to distribute food waste to hungry kids while building their ability to feed students. But questions surround these projects: Can they really feed children, or are they turning schools into just another dumping ground for food waste?

Art by Samantha Wey

FEEDING CANADA’S SCHOOLS

Canada is the only G8 country without a national school meal program. Everyone else—including the U.S.—has found a way to guarantee school-age children five meals per week during the school year. With little provincial support, most Canadian schools struggle to provide for even the most vulnerable students.

At Reynolds Secondary School in Victoria, Heather Coey, a sharp-witted and passionate leadership studies teacher, runs a weekly salad bar program with her students that sources locally grown fresh food. But passion only goes so far. “The mechanics is one of the most challenging parts,” says Coey. “From who does it, who accesses it, how it works, it is hard to identify kids who actually need it. We are trying to make it part of the whole school culture and not single people out.”

Coey says we need to find a balance. “Deal with hungry kids now. Do things such as food education to prevent the problem, and then connect the two, so they are interdependent, so that one doesn’t happen without the other.” This means that while student need to eat, they also need to learn how to access, grow, and cook food—and they need to understand the larger implications of our current food system.

With teachers like Coey working with local producers, some schools manage to feed their students healthy food, but many are just as processed as what we see in the U.S.—although that’s beginning to change. Thanks to Michelle Obama and the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, American schools are creating healthier meals and sourcing more locally. In both the U.S. and Canada, Farm to School and Farm to Cafeteria movements and organizations like the Urban Food School Alliance have shaped the landscape by helping institutions purchase local food.

This change has increased revenue for small- and medium-scale farms. While larger farms can distribute food on a massive scale to increase efficiency and profit, they struggle to grow produce and raise livestock in a sustainable, ecologically sensitive, and ethical way. Farms in Greater Victoria are relatively small compared to the rest of Canada, so they face even bigger challenges with distribution and cold storage.

“Canada is the only G8 country
without a national meal program”

Instead of selling small quantities of food to a wide variety of customers, farmers can sell larger amounts to institutions. When these smaller farms band together, they can grow and distribute their food in bulk and split the cost of marketing. The result: a steady income with less work. And schools can save money and time by ordering from one source without sacrificing quality.

The biggest barriers for schools are infrastructure, staff time, and the money to purchase fresh local food. That’s partly why some schools are looking at alternative sources—like food that might otherwise get thrown away by nearby grocery stores.

Combining models might allow schools to guarantee students a healthy meal and let Canada finally join the other G8 countries. Experts in the local food movement, however, caution that “rescued food” might come at a long-term cost for hungry schools.

A CRASH COURSE IN FOOD BANKS

Why are local food advocates ambivalent about rescuing food from grocery store dumpsters? To understand the complexity of this issue, it’s worth looking back at the history of food banks and the role of our industrial food system.

Canada’s first food banks opened in 1981. They were meant to be a Band-Aid solution to what people hoped was a short-term problem. At first, volunteer-run food banks were used infrequently and by a small number of people. Grocery stores often donated food that couldn’t be sold because it was close to its expiry date.

Fast-forward 40 years: the short-term solution has grown to over 800 food banks across Canada. Meanwhile, grocery stores are throwing out more food and more people than ever are food insecure.

Food banks prop up the industrial food system by offering a charitable outlet for the overproduction of highly processed food and the produce imported from Latin America, Africa, and Asia. There, produce is grown in large quantities for huge corporations with cheap local labour and then distributed globally.

Food is lost all along the food chain, inflating the final price. As the produce passes from farmer to distributor and on to the grocery store, consumers can see as much as 60 percent markup. And yet grocery stores don’t make much profit on it because a large amount of what they import ends up in a dumpster.

The cost of the industrial food system falls on the consumers—even as it leaves negative health and environmental effects at every stop on the food’s journey. Food waste is one of the reasons fresh produce is so expensive in grocery stores. The inefficient and unequal global economic cycle that brings food from farm gate to dinner plate motivates many in the local food movement.

LOCAL FOOD FOR LOCAL SCHOOLS

The fact remains: redistributing rescued food does nothing to change a flawed system. While “rescuing” food cuts down on waste and gets fresh produce to families on a tight budget, it sustains a system in which large corporations profit by growing food at an enormous scale and shipping it around the planet.

Nestled on Viewfield Road in an industrial area of Esquimalt, among large, loud delivery trucks, sit two warehouses. One—the Food Rescue Distribution Centre—is operated by the Mustard Seed and the Food Share Network. The other is where LifeCycles keeps gleaned local fruit and vegetables in cold storage for redistribution alongside the rescued food.

“The warehouse is an agency-to-agency location,” explains Brenda Bolton, the coordinator of the Food Share Network. “Some agencies come and pick up and others have it dropped off. All partners use the food the way they want. There is no prescriptive way, from community kitchens to meal hampers to best baby programs.” The food goes to the people who need it, but it’s still a stopgap. “We need less food waste, and we need to support more local farmers,” she says.

According to Bolton, the network is starting with a few schools so the districts can see how it works and then

expand the system. She says “food champions”—teachers like Coey—will drive the pilot project’s success. “There needs to be someone within the school community who is able to take it up,” says Bolton.

She also has a dream for how helping schools feed students can improve neighbourhoods. “Every school is a

node in its community,” says Bolton. “They play an important role, not just for education but for nutrition in the holistic sense—physical education and mental education. They are a way of connecting with community.”

Back in Fernwood, Harned has been making big changes. Since she started work there a year ago, Fernwood NRG has offered more local and rescued food in its programs, including family and student dinners, the Good Food Box, and child care, while increasing its cold and dry storage to handle incoming food.

Fernwood NRG will collaborate on the Vic High pilot project this fall, providing food for students and allowing the NRG do outreach with students. Although some schools, like Vic High and Reynolds, already have salad bar programs, they lack the infrastructure to process food and make tasty meals that students will eat and the money to purchase healthy nutritious food. Rescued food can give the schools a head start with free food that would otherwise be wasted.

Fernwood NRG, LifeCycles Project Society, the Mustard Seed, and these schools are building storage and processing infrastructure, along with distribution models for local food. Backed by charities such as the Victoria Foundation and the Rotary Club, they are creating public awareness about food waste and rescue projects and charting a way out of our dependence on the industrial food system.

WEANING OURSELVES OFF WASTE

These models are not just a dream; the planning and implementation are happening this year. For now, most of the food coming into schools is rescued, but local produce is available through what the LifeCycles Fruit Tree Project harvests and gleans from local orchards and farms.

LifeCycles executive director Matthew Kemshaw also views schools as the hubs of local communities. “Schools can be a web that connect community to help neighbourhoods become sufficient and self-sustaining,” he says. “It is exciting to know a lot of students and families will be able to have better access to food, and it has a lot of potential to be a unique educational piece, to help families and students understand their connection to health, community, and the land and environment.”

These projects walk a fine line along the edge of a slippery slope. Without ambitious goals for local suppliers, schools will become a dumping ground for rescued food and fail to address the systemic issue of a broken system that separates people from the source of their food.

One solution could be annual targets, such as 80 percent rescued food and 20 percent local in the first year, raising the amount of local food used each year. All fruit in schools during September to November could be locally sourced, while in the spring, rescued food could fill the gap.

Kemshaw believes these pilot projects will create more demand for healthy local food in schools. “We are slowly trying to trickle in more and more local food and use less industrial food,” he says. “One day, we can feed everyone with beautiful, healthy, local food.”

We may never fully escape the globe-spanning mechanisms and wasteful byproducts of our industrial food system. And we may always to need to fall back on food banks and discarded produce to fill the plates of families in need. But perhaps if school-based programs and neighbourhood organizations can work together, we can grow the local food movement slowly, steadily—and wisely—and learn how to change the system from within. ♦

 

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