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How one Toronto organization is saving good food from the garbage

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY THE GLOBE AND MAIL

I know a couple, let's call them Lily and Zach. On Friday nights they lounge while their daughter plays: With cookbooks spread out and online recipes bookmarked, Zach and Lily plan out meals for the entire week.

On Saturdays, the couple shops for the meals they've planned, plus a few snacks. By the time that Sunday night rolls around, they've got a number of meals prepped, and most lunches set. The week's eating is a source of delight and deliciousness, not stress.

Yes, I hate them too. Lily and Zach are nutty and uptight, giving themselves one more chore that subtracts from free time that could be spent watching Game of Thrones.

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But here's the twist. Zach and Lily don't buy food they don't need. Because of their routine, they rarely throw whole, unused produce into their green bin.

The other option, more popular in Canada, is to buy food just to let it rot. Of the $31-billion worth of food that Canadians waste every year, 47 per cent is in the home.

As a guest, I would never look in someone's medicine cabinet, but I always look in the fridge (consequently, I am rarely invited anywhere). Whoever said that the eyes are the window to the soul never peered into the vegetable crisper of a loved one to see browning romaine, withered grapes and mummified carrots, all of it untouched since purchase.

In a world where the phrase "epic fail" is far overused, this is a tragedy of monumental proportions.

On a professional level, I have seen food waste that makes me want to cry: hundreds of pounds of green beans rotting in the sun at the Ontario Food Terminal because fresher beans came in before these could be sold; asparagus peels tossed in the restaurant kitchen trash because rich diners can't stomach the skin of a vegetable; a flat of less-than-perfect cantaloupes left in the alley behind a supermarket because there is no space on the retail floor.

In a country where one in eight families lacks reliable access to affordable, nutritious food (a situation experts dub being "food insecure"), wasting this much food, not to mention water, gas and electricity used to grow, ship and store this garbage-to-be is a crime.

That's not hyperbole: Earlier this year, France actually made food waste a crime, passing a law requiring supermarkets to partner with food donation agencies. Grocers who destroy or throw away edible food risk racking up fines of €75,000 (about $110,000).

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Canada lacks similar legislation, which is why we have food rescue operations such as Moisson Montreal, Quest Food Exchange in Vancouver and Second Harvest, which collects and distributes food to more than 200 social agencies in Toronto.

Soliciting food donations takes up a lot of time. In the Second Harvest office, two shaggy dogs named Dyrby and Kramer scamper around while staffers call farmers and companies such as Loblaws and Maple Leaf, soliciting donations of food that has been overbought or overproduced, looking to redirect it before it becomes waste.

"I've seen Loblaws crush skids of yogurt," says director of communications Cori MacPhee, describing a machine like the one in Goldfinger that pressed the car into a small cube, but in this case with gallons of yogurt oozing out the sides. "It's amazing what grocery stores consider unusable."

Nutrient-rich fresh foods are in scarce supply compared with shelf stable goods, a problem faced by every food insecurity agency (including, but not limited to, food banks). The food that Second Harvest distributes is 58 per cent fresh ingredients. To keep perishable food waste at 3 per cent, nothing stays in the produce walk-in fridge for more than 48 hours.

"I often say we run a logistics company," executive director Debra Lawson says. "Because it's really about transferring very precious cargo, picking it up and delivering it, in a very short span of time."

Every day at 4:30 a.m. the warehouse manager looks at the meat and produce supply, plus flats of donated crackers, juice, potatoes and canned soup, and divides the day's dispersals among its trucks.

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At 8 a.m. one Monday, I head out on the road with Hektor Habili, a former driver for the Red Cross in Albania. Our truck pulls to the curb in front of Across Boundaries, an outreach centre near Dufferin Street. and Eglinton Street W. that provides mental health and addiction services for racialized communities. Habili kills the engine and rolls open the back of the truck.

Most of the food that Second Harvest redirects – nine million pounds each year – is at the distribution level, from farms, factories or supermarkets. That could mean up to 50,000 pounds of potatoes in one haul (since 2013, Ontario farmers are able to receive a tax deduction for 25 per cent of the value of donated food).

Often, it comes down to one individual, like Habili, making quick decisions to make sure good food gets eaten instead of thrown out. Habili knows his route, knows each organization and what they can or can't use. He decides how much to dispense at each stop.

Second Harvest clients take what's available. It's good, fresh food – although sometimes lacking packaging, or close to its expiration date – but kitchen managers at each organization are tasked with figuring out how to make meals of unpredictable ingredients. "That's what I've got for you this week," Habili softly declares as he hands a case of yogurt to Across Boundaries employee Andrew Abraham, who also unloads cases of lettuce and hot dog buns and sacks of potatoes.

Restaurants are more of a lost cause than the organizations that Second Harvest works with. At night, the waste bins lined up outside of restaurants might also stir tears.

The majority of restaurant kitchens I've been in don't compost. Even for chefs who want to, it's hard finding a spot for one more bin in the kitchen, where there's often less free space than legroom in an Air Canada coach seat. And most owners just can't do it, since the additional cost (restaurants already pay private companies for waste disposal because city services don't come daily) would be one more dent in a thin profit margin.

It's easy to point fingers, but home cooks, too, waste far more food (and money) than is necessary. The consumer habit of weekly shopping makes sense for non-perishable staples. But buying produce once a week almost certainly dooms too much of it to go unused before it wilts.

"We go into a grocery store and everything's so beautiful and we're seduced, by the most attractive asparagus and incredible tomatoes," Lawson says. "So we're overbuying. And when you bring it home, it sits there." I get it – not everyone has the time to shop multiple times a week. But what you buy and how you plan to use it can greatly reduce your amount of food waste. (Tip/Caveat: learning to love cabbage could kill two birds with one stone.)

It's a great start that Loblaws has recently begun selling "Naturally Imperfect" produce, offering aesthetically challenged fruits and vegetables at a discount. It's far better than perfectly edible food being thrown out, and it raises awareness for consumers, about what food actually looks like (that is, not uniform). But consumers need to step up, too.

Cooking like a chef isn't about exotic garnishes and fancy plating. It's about knowing how to make something good out of what you have available and planning the use of your resources based on their degradability.

It's knowing that spinach turns slimy after a few days, but cabbage is good all week. It's using quickly decaying basil on Monday and saving robust parsley for Friday. It's knowing that wilted kale tastes no different when it's cooked. It's buying only the food you need or having a designated weeknight when you cook whatever ingredients are left in the fridge. At Lawson's house, they call it a "this and that" dinner.

So who are the real monsters? Is it yuppies Lily and Zach, for making a family activity of meal planning? Or is it the shopper who buys asparagus and broccoli every week, just to throw them in the compost?

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