With rising food costs and dwindling government grants, diverting edible food away from landfills and onto people's plates is more difficult now than it was when pandemic public health restrictions were in full swing.

COVID-19 brought an influx of funding for charities, which helped programs that cut food waste move forward, explained Carla Pellegrini, executive director of Food Stash. Buoyed by these funds, her Vancouver-based organization — which collects excess food from grocery stores and redistributes it to charities and people in need — soared from a one-person side project to a full-blown non-profit with over a dozen employees, three trucks and a large warehouse.

"We grew a ton during that period," she said. But that pandemic-era growth has become more difficult to maintain recently as the federal government's emergency grants for food redistribution organizations have dried up. "How do we maintain this scale and grow it?"

The National Zero Waste Council estimates that Canadians waste roughly 2.3 million tons of food each year. Just under half this waste is generated before it even reaches consumers, either on farms, in the supply chain or from grocery stores. Wasted food is also a major source of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change, on top of the huge financial and nutritional loss it represents.

Recent years have seen a surge of non-profit organizations and businesses trying everything from transforming ugly fruits and vegetables into juice to building entire supply chains that link grocery stores with charities. The federal government has also pitched in, funding organizations and researchers tackling the problem and using its resources to investigate the issue.

But some researchers think fixing the problem will take deeper changes in how we produce, distribute and consume food to move away from a linear system. Fixing food waste might also be the key to a more "circular" economy that reuses most resources, reducing our reliance on harmful extractive industries like mining, oil and gas development or logging.

Previous research has pointed to everything from labelling requirements and best-before dates to farm worker shortages as causes for this massive loss of food. People buying too much or forgetting to use the foods in their fridges are also a significant source of waste.

"Basically, the problem is all across the food supply chain," summed up Tammara Soma, the research director of Simon Fraser University's Food Systems Lab and a food waste expert.

But even with these efforts, Canada and other countries continue to struggle to fix our food systems so they do not generate as much waste. Leanne Keddie, a professor of environmental accounting at Carleton University's Sprott School of Business, is part of a research team trying to figure out why and if possible solutions to food waste could help make Canada's overall economy more "circular."

The pandemic brought an influx of funding to charities, giving a boost to programs that cut food waste. But with that money now gone, researchers and food redistribution organizations are looking for alternative ways to prevent the problem.

"If you think about food, it's naturally circular. It's just that humans get involved and mess it up," she said. Unlike plastic or metals — both commonly wasted materials — food is biodegradable, meaning it should be relatively easy to keep out of the landfill. For Keddie and her co-researchers, that was a major draw.

"This could be a really important way to examine how to help organizations move to a circular economy," she explained. "If we can figure it out in a food waste setting, then maybe we can apply this learning to other areas."

Research has yet to fully start. Once it does, the team will interview food distributors, grocers, food rescue companies and non-profits, and others in the supply chain to determine what prevents them from scaling up their efforts to keep food out of the dumpster.

"I'm not sure what the tipping point is going to be," she said.

For Pellegrini, Food Stash's executive director, money has by far been the biggest challenge to growing the operation. While she would ideally like to see the grocers who donate their extra food develop better inventory and reporting systems that prevent food waste entirely, she knows this won't happen overnight.

In the meantime, dozens of grocery stores and other businesses want to donate excess food, and there is growing demand for donated goods as people struggle with food insecurity amidst soaring prices. This kind of redistribution from grocers to charity isn't sustainable for people or the planet "in a long-term way," warned Soma, but in the short term, it can help meet "an immediate need."

So far, Pellegrini said Food Stash has relied on donations and government grants to make ends meet. With fewer grants and donations as the pandemic winds down and inflation hits Canadians' wallets, she is looking for alternative ways to keep the organization afloat, like charging the grocers who supply them a fee to haul away the excess food.

"We're providing a haulage service to these grocers … saving them hundreds of dollars a month in labour and all the waste management," she said. Charging the stores even half the price of a commercial waste disposal company would generate a more steady income to fund Food Stash's operations and continued growth.

For Soma, those challenges come as no surprise. High costs — for land, for labour, for gas — are one of the largest and most consistent barriers she sees hindering efforts to reduce the amount of food Canadians waste. One solution is trying to shorten the supply chain separating farmers and fishers from consumers.

"We really need to think about the structure of food and agriculture," she said.

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Yes why is it so hard to stop wasting food. Because we can. We complain about the cost of food and then throw it away creating yet another problem of methane in landfills from rotting food. It takes 25 years for a head of iceberg lettuce to completely decompose in a landfill. I have a garden and a lovely compost pile and I don't eat meat so I should be nominated for sainthood but that won't happen anytime soon.

One of the root problems is economics. Corporations know it is more profitable to sell too much food to people who can afford it than to feed the poor. We need a national food sovereignty (not just food security) vision and make feeding people a priority at least alongside corporate profitability. Those revolutionary ideas would lead to some substantial changes in agriculture and agricultural policy and dramatically decrease GHG emissions but big money stands in the way.