Skip to main content
stepping up
Open this photo in gallery:

Tammara Soma of the Food Systems lab, who is researching solutions for food waste problems, poses for a photograph at a University of Toronto cafeteria in Toronto on Friday, Nov. 2, 2018.Tijana Martin


Location: BURNABY, B.C.

Biggest influence: Her parents. Both teach at universities in Indonesia.

Best piece of advice: In times of struggle, her parents would tell her "to always look down," to remind herself that there is always someone else struggling more, and to focus instead on gratitude.

This is part of Stepping Up, a series introducing Canadians to their country’s new sources of inspiration and leadership.

Growing up in Indonesia, any time Tammara Soma didn’t finish the food on her plate she could expect a scolding by her parents, accompanied by a familiar refrain. “The rice is crying,” they would say, over and over again.

It was a reference to a well-known local fable: The tale of a farmer who prepares to leave her field only to be haunted by the sound of crying from rice stalks left unharvested. The tears, it was impressed upon the young Ms. Soma, represented the hard work of the farmers as well as water and resources that had been squandered.

“It meant that wasting all of that food was something to cry about,” she said.

The lesson stuck with her, and in the time since she’s become one of our country’s leading voices on the issue of food waste. She’s just relocated from Toronto to Burnaby to teach at British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University, and will continue her Food Systems Lab – a program she started in Toronto that’s dedicated to finding pragmatic solutions to food waste – from there. But what really makes Ms. Soma stand out as a crusader against food waste is a knack for bringing disparate players together – everyone from provincial cabinet ministers and food company executives to activists and farm workers – to work alongside her.

Her interest in food was partly ignited when she first moved to Canada for university. “Coming to Canada, I just kind of expected that with such a prosperous country and such an abundance of food, it didn’t make sense to have this huge amount of hunger.”

Gradually, she learned that huge amounts of food were, in fact, being wasted every day. In Canada, an estimated $31-billion worth of food is wasted every year. Around the world, about one-third of all food produced (mostly fruit, vegetables and meat) is needlessly thrown out. In addition to an economic problem, it’s an environmental one, considering the water, land and fertilizer that go to waste when food winds up in landfills.

Cities, she learned, are a huge part of the problem and where much of that waste is taking place. So, with her masters and PhD in urban planning from the University of Toronto, she merged her interests, conducting work in a growing field known as “food systems planning.” It’s a discipline that takes a food-focused approach to city-planning, to ensure that issues such as food security and sustainability are given consideration when making decisions.

For example, food systems planners will watch to ensure that cities don’t inadvertently create food deserts by restricting the building of grocery stores, making them hard to access in certain areas, or allowing urban sprawl to pave over farmland. They also work to ensure that cities have the proper infrastructure in place to facilitate food waste.

Her work is not glamorous. Before moving to Vancouver, much of her time was spent hunched over piles of waste at Toronto’s “transfer stations” – a nicer name for the city’s garbage dumps. There, she was working on a project funded in large part by the Weston Foundation, and alongside the University of Toronto’s Virginia Maclaren (the principal investigator on the study), measuring waste. On an average day, her team collected the garbage from about 30 households before performing audits on the contents. They waded through the garbage, cataloguing the entire loaves of bread, whole heads of untouched romaine or unopened clamshells filled with raspberries.

It was a smelly job (especially in the summer, when she’d have to sift through handfuls of wriggling maggots), and one she sometimes found disheartening. “Some days, we were just like, ‘Oh my God, what is society doing to itself?’”

The secret to Ms. Soma’s effectiveness is in her ability to bring people together, said Evan Fraser, director of the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph, who has worked with her on several projects. The Food Systems Lab she co-created at the University of Toronto brings together groups from all points along the food chain. One of their workshops last year, for example, drew then-Ontario environment minister Glen Murray, University of Waterloo senior Indigenous research fellow Melanie Goodchild, city councillors, local food company founders, and activists.

“In that lab space she’s created, we can actually plan and resolve issues, as opposed to slinging arrows at each other," he said.

“She is a fiendishly intelligent, unbelievably articulate young woman,” he said. “She speaks from a plurality of perspectives ... she speaks at a high scientific level, as well as the lived experience level. She’s just very, very authentic.”

Gabriel Allahdua, a former agricultural migrant worker from Saint Lucia and organizer with Justice for Migrant Workers, has participated in Ms. Soma’s labs, and echoed this. “Her ability to bring together and engage a wide cross-section of people and organizations involved with food at various points of the local food system is a first for me and extraordinary.”

For her PhD work recently, Ms. Soma turned her attention back to Indonesia. She learned, with some alarm, that the rapid rise in urbanization there has caused her home country to follow in Canada’s footsteps of generating huge amounts of food waste.

“There’s this misconception that people in developing countries are too poor to waste,” she said. “When actually, urbanization is one of the drivers of food waste generation.”

Her research recommended a number of interventions, including promoting the preservation of traditional markets and small-scale vendors, to help prevent the proliferation of big-box stores. The latter, she said, encourages bulk-buying and wasted food.

It all boils down to the lesson her parents taught her all those years ago, she said.

“It’s ingrained in me,” she said. “That idea of respecting food, valuing it – that rice – it’s part of my identity.”

Read more in the Stepping Up series:

Dalhousie Indigenous student showing Canada the way to reconciliation

Toronto human rights lawyer sounds the alarm on Canada’s plans to use AI in immigration

Vancouver teacher is schooling educators on the value of inclusive classrooms

How one artistic director is casting for more diversity on stage

The animation executive who makes parents' lives easier

A theatre company without a venue? Yeah, Why Not

How a research lab is taking lessons from music

Moms united in grief and new purpose: to change how addiction is treated in Canada

Halifax councillor inspiring youth to have a say in how their communities are built and run

Cannabis Amnesty founder pushing for change – and facts – around pardons for possession

To spur change, conservationist urges scientists to speak up for themselves