The article was initially published as a column in the Armchair Mayor News on December 12, 2014.
Our garden was lush and plentiful this year. We had lettuce since early spring, we had green onion, radishes, kale, chard, and herbs. Later in the summer we had carrots and potatoes and corn. We shared lots with friends and still had enough to freeze.
All that we had was grown on less than half of our backyard, so it was only normal that I kept fantasizing about growing food on the rest of it. If less than half could feed us so well, how about a whole back yard?
The work was hard, no question. Incredibly pleasurable though and rewarding. On any given summer morning I was greeted by an army of grasshoppers guarding the corn, pumpkins, tomatoes and potatoes. Hopping as their nature prescribed, they were a sign that my organic garden was well liked by other critters like butterflies and ladybugs.
The boys helped out as well and they loved eating straight from the garden. They learned a lot too; gratefulness most of all, and the wonder of a seed becoming a full grown plant ready to provide for us.
They learned the value of food and understood why throwing it out uneaten, as waste, is unacceptable. It happens more than we would expect, or admit.
I remember seeing piles of fruit and vegetables discarded on Granville Island in garbage bins, a stark contrast with the perfect produce offered inside where everything looked nothing short of perfect.
I felt slightly uncomfortable thinking that we, the consumers, shape that perfect offer with our buying habits; which, in turn, have been shaped and conditioned by crafty marketing teams over the years.
The fallacy of that way of thinking and acting is that produce is not perfect. In our garden we got to see dwarf veggies, contorted carrots and a misshaped pear here and there. Nature is not perfect. But they were all perfectly edible, no matter the shape.
I remember when I was little and among others, I would go get the fresh eggs every day. I liked seeing them round in the straw nests and I would always inspect them carefully. Some were misshapen and I would ask my dad why. He would shrug, not bothered in the least. It’s how they come out, he would say. It made sense. Nature is not perfect.
Fast forward a few good years; I was at Simon Fraser University having lunch with other grad students and while no meal stood out, this particular one did. One of my friends was ready to eat a peach and seeing a bruise on one side, she said a loud ‘yuck’ and sent the unfortunate fruit straight into the garbage bin.
Many years later, the memory of the plunging peach is still with me. It stopped me from throwing food out every time, and it made me shake my head every time I see hungry people. I tried often to do my part and provide food for the less fortunate, yet thoughts related to food and waste are relentless. How could there be?
There is enough food lying around for no one to go hungry no matter what their budget is like, even if there is no budget at all.
There is too much food going straight into the garbage because of perfection standards that we should no longer entertain; it is insulting towards those who do not have any food, and it is insulting towards nature itself. We cannot give to food banks with one hand and throw away food with the other.
If you have doubts about food waste, just talk to the produce clerks. If the store is small enough you might see the old stuff bagged up for sale at a fraction of the price, a good solution to prevent waste. In big stores though, everything unsightly or old goes into the garbage.
A recent report pointed out that Canadians throw out up to 50 per cent of the food they buy. A few years ago I would rolled my eyes at the numbers, but not anymore. I went to one too many dinner parties or events where the leftovers were discarded and sent straight to the landfill.
With Christmas just around the corner, the thought of food and food waste comes back with a vengeance. How much food will be wasted, how many people will go hungry or eat low quality food that comes from a can rather than fresh, albeit slightly bruised produce that is better nutritionally than anything canned that might or might not come with added chemicals.
There is no simple answer to the food dilemma. Until we all decide that bad food is not the bruised or misshapen fruit, or even the ones that reach the best before date (think perfectly edible stuff like frozen food, dry food or yogurt that go a day or two over the date), we will have inexcusable indignities in food distribution, and we will have mountains of food piled up in landfills instead of people’s plates.
As for the truly bad food, some of it genetically modified, or the one that we insist on growing with loads of toxic pesticides so that we can have it all: lots of it to choose from, available all year round, cheap enough to throw out and tasteless enough to not feel bad about it anyway… well, the old ‘you are what you eat’ should be warning enough.
If less than half of a cultivated back yard can provide enough fresh produce to feed a family of four over the summer and well into the fall, sure people can grow enough food, healthy food that is, to have everyone fed and no bits thrown out unless they go into the compost.
With food becoming more expensive as we go (have you noticed?) it’s impossible not to ask why. Why, when there is enough to feed us all, and if there isn’t enough, then there shouldn’t be any in the garbage.