By: Natalie Noble
Food waste is an all too common occurrence in North America. Whether it be overloaded, unfinished dinner plates, riper fruits and vegetables overlooked at the grocery store, or produce left to spoil due to low demand, it’s an issue that threatens our sustainable future. But it’s also one we can all do something about.
Lourdes Juan, founder and executive director of the Leftovers Foundation, has stepped up in a big way to help solve the food waste problem. It all began back in 2012 when she noticed a massive amount of still-edible goods in a bakery about to go to waste. “At the end of the day [this] really sparked my interest of looking into food waste,” she recalls. “It was crazy to see the stats. Back then it was $31 billion a year in Canada of food waste. Now it’s $49.5 billion.”
In fact, Toronto’s Second Harvest(1) estimates the average Canadian household loses $1,766 per year in avoidable food waste, while 1.4 million children across the country are limited in access to healthy food. Leftovers’ programs and their “army of volunteers” work to ensure those in need of often-wasted-yet-still-nutritious food are getting it before the landfill does through their Rescue Food program.
“It operates in Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, and smaller towns like Jasper and Hinton in Alberta,” says Juan. “We redirect just over 10,000 lbs of food per week from restaurants, grocery stores, and bakeries, and ensure this food gets to those in need through service agencies.”
The massive amount of rescued food is donated by participating businesses and cuts their costs on expenses like food storage and disposal. Meanwhile, service agencies and charitable organizations save on their grocery bills by receiving still-edible food that has not yet reached its expiry date—a win-win for everyone.
Just because the food is donated and might otherwise have been thrown out, doesn’t mean it’s not still healthy. It just needs to be consumed sooner. The Leftover Foundation adheres to Alberta Health Services’ guidelines around food donations, ensuring safety and quality in their produce. Requirements include that donations be within their expiry date and dry goods must be in unopened packages.
To ensure volunteering is simple and safe, Leftovers built the Rescue Food App in 2019 for volunteers to navigate their food redirection routes using their smart phones. It takes only one to two hours per month to help pick up donated food from businesses where it may soon be disposed of, and drop it off to those who can use it.
It didn’t take the Leftovers Foundation long to discover that there was so much food to be rescued they could distribute it in other ways as well. They are also improving access to healthy food in access-challenged locations with Fresh Routes, their community mobile food market.
“We were learning that [the] communities we worked with through Leftovers were having trouble accessing and affording food, so we wanted to do something about it,” says Juan.
Fresh Routes currently brings fruits, vegetables, eggs, and whole grain products to customers in Calgary and Edmonton. Stops are located in “food deserts,” which are vulnerable neighbourhoods that face barriers in access to quality, affordable, and fresh food. “We help people get access to food that’s affordable and healthy,” says Juan. “The idea was to do pop up markets that sold affordable food at 30–60 per cent below market value.”
That lower price tag is made possible thanks to food being donated and the volunteers who run the grocery stores. This means many consumers previously challenged in access to fresh produce can now afford to select and purchase it on their own rather than relying on charitable organizations or having to go without.
Today Fresh Routes reaches close to sixty stops per month, bringing a new opportunity for choice, and building community along the way. All of Leftovers Foundation’s programming combined rescued over 310,000 lbs of food in 2019.
“We hope that every Canadian has access to healthy food,” says Juan. “I really believe that if we mobilize communities to make sure food waste is top of mind, we will waste less.”
For more information on food loss and waste explore our Nourishing Minds publications here.
1 Second Harvest—The Avoidable Crisis of Food Waste: The Roadmap, 2019