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Food Waste: Where are we now and how can we help?

November 12, 2020

Author: Natalie DeMarco MScFN (c), Dietetic Intern

Food waste is an often overlooked yet significant environmental issue that has gained media attention in recent years.  

According to the National Zero Waste Council’s research on food waste in Canada, it is estimated that approximately 2.2 million tonnes of edible food is wasted each year at the household level. 1 This costs Canadian families upward of $17 billion for discarded food. If we put this into perspective – the amount of food wasted each year would feed every person living in Canada for five months. 2 A recent study indicates that half of this food waste occurs at the household level and that there are profound environmental, social, and economic implications for this. 3 Environmentally, food waste can create devastating ripple effects, including wasted resources used to grow, produce, and distribute the food. 1 In retrospect, this produces greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change, equivalent to 9.8 tonnes of CO2  worldwide. 1  

There are also some aspects of food literacy skills that can tie into being more cognizant of food waste at a consumer level. As described by the Food Literacy Framework (developed by a collaborative group of Ontario Public Health Dietitians), having a deeper understanding of food knowledge, nutrition literacy, and cooking knowledge is associated with one developing cooking and eating practices that are less wasteful. A recent report out of Dalhousie University found that since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Canadian families have been planning their meals more closely to minimize trips to the grocery store and have been cooking more at home as a result. 4 In addition, The National Zero Waste Council also conducted a nation-wide survey, showing that of the 1200 Canadians surveyed, 24% of households are throwing away less food than they were pre-pandemic, meanwhile 94% of Canadians indicate they are more motivated to reduce their household food waste. 5 If this trend continues, Canada could see a significant reduction in household food waste. That combined with an improvement in food literacy skills such as planning meals ahead and using up foods before they go bad or expire, and being creative with leftovers can go a long way to reducing food waste among Canadian families. However, this remains a relatively small component of food waste at large. Food waste behaviours can also be attributed to an individual’s values, behaviours, motives, lifestyle, and convenience, making it a multi-faceted issue involving more research. 6   

What about retail food waste? Retail food waste accounts for an estimated 12% of Canada’s avoidable food waste costs 7. This type of waste occurs when foods are received flawed, damaged, or bruised, or if there has been inaccurate forecasting or poor inventory management creating a surplus of food, to name a few examples. 7 Upstream approaches continue to lead the hierarchy of food waste. In a 2017 discussion paper entitled ‘Addressing Food and Organic Food Waste in Ontario’, recommendations were made to divert downstream food waste by implementing upstream interventions such as strong disincentive fees, including disposal fees if the waste is bulky, and fines for the value of carbon footprint equivalency to target food waste at the source. This paper noted that food banks were often required to discard food donations that have exceeded their ‘best before’ or ‘expired’ date, and, thus a surplus of food donations may increase staff burden as they attempt to sort through this donated food into edible and inedible products. Further, the retail industry was being rewarded for goodwill gestures to donate food to food banks, albeit with foods being close to their expiry date, which exacerbates the problem. It is important to know that offloading food to food banks does not reduce food insecurity in communities and should not be considered a solution to food waste. A new Food and Organic Waste Policy Statement is being considered.

The Government of Ontario’s Strategy for a Waste-Free Ontario aims to create an Organic Waste Framework that targets the source of the waste rather than putting the onus on food charities at the end point. Downstream, the strategy proposes recovery approaches to rescue foods that are about to go to waste through reusing or recycling non-organic or non-edible food, or can be re-diverted to feed animals in accordance with a circular economy. The strategy also indicates that no incentives or rewards should be provided for donations of a surplus of food to food banks or charities to discourage further wastage. 

Knowing how and why food waste occurs is the first step that Canadian families can take to make changes to their meal planning and preparation routines 3. Here are a few approaches we can take in our households and beyond to minimize food waste: 

  • Plan meals and snacks ahead. This will help determine precisely how many perishable items are needed to be used before they become spoiled. 9 
  • Store foods properly. This includes putting perishable foods in the fridge or freezer, ensuring that the cold air can circulate. 9 Ensure that non-perishable items are stored in a dry place at room temperature.
  • Stock your pantry with essential, versatile items that can be used in various dishes. 9  
  • Use leftovers in other dishes throughout the week to avoid spoilage. 9   

For recipe inspiration and additional tips for reducing food waste, check out the cookbook –  Rock What You’ve Got – Recipes for Preventing Food Waste - created by the Guelph Family Health Study and George Brown College’s Food Innovation and Research Studio with support from The Helderleigh Foundation, and the National Zero Waste Council


  1. Bringing together organizations to advance waste prevention and the circular economy in Canada. (n.d.). Retrieved November 05, 2020, from 
  1. Parizeau, K. (2019). Food waste and food literacy: Insights from the University of Guelph. [PowerPoint Slides]. Retrieved from NRC Annual Team Forum.  
  1. Parizeau, K., Massow, M. V., & Martin, R. (2015). Household-level dynamics of food waste production and related beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours in Guelph, Ontario. Waste Management, 35, 207-217. doi:10.1016/j.wasman.2014.09.019 
  1. McGuckin, A. (2020, August 18). Canadians shifting food habits during coronavirus pandemic: Report [Editorial]. Global News. Retrieved November 05, 2020, from 
  1. Zero Waste Council. (2020, September 15). COVID-19 Driving Canadians to Waste Less Food: Survey. Retrieved November 11, 2020, from 
  1. Gallant, M. (2019, September 17). The Connection Between Food Literacy and Food Waste. Retrieved November 09, 2020, from 
  1. McGuckin, A. (2020, August 18). Canadians shifting food habits during coronavirus pandemic: Report [Editorial]. Global News. Retrieved November 05, 2020, from 
  1. Taking stock: Reducing food loss and waste in Canada. (2019, June 28). Retrieved November 05, 2020, from
  1. Tips On Reducing Food Waste At Home. (2020, February 21). Retrieved November 05, 2020, from 


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