As people recognize the magnitude of food waste and its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and global warming, interest in finding ways to reduce food waste, globally and in Canada, is escalating. A private member’s Bill (it was defeated) was introduced in February 2016 to support the development of a national strategy to reduce food waste in Canada, and the National Zero Waste Council continues to take leadership in advocating for the reduction of food waste and Canada’s carbon emissions through its proposed National Food Waste Reduction Strategy. Waste reduction is also being discussed at the provincial/territorial level (e.g., Addressing Food and Organic Waste in Ontario).
Embedded in these proposals are the assumptions that measures are required to promote the donation of edible food waste by the private sector to food and other community organizations and that food waste can be used effectively to address problems of hunger and food insecurity. Both claims are seriously misguided. While corporate food waste definitely should be reduced, it is questionable how much of the edible food currently going into landfills could and would be salvaged if there was more donation of unsaleable products to food banks and other charitable food organizations. Furthermore, food banks — ad hoc, voluntary organizations that collect and redistribute donated foods to those “in need” — cannot address the large and growing problem of household food insecurity.
Food industry and food charity
For more than 30 years, charitable food assistance providers have been forging partnerships with food producers, manufacturers and retailers to collect edible “leftovers” for their clients. Most provinces and territories now have Good Samaritan legislation to absolve corporate donors of liability for the health and safety of food donated to food banks. This legislation frees the food industry to donate products that do not comply with the standards applied to food retail and food service operations in Canada. Corporations are currently able to write donated food off as a loss, while benefiting financially from savings on disposal costs and garnering public goodwill from their generous support of food charities.
Measures to stimulate increased donations to charitable food programs are not needed. Even proponents of corporate tax credits, such as Food Banks Canada, acknowledge that the introduction of such credits would reward corporations for current practices, but would not lead to dramatic increases in food donations. The situation in the United States is also instructive, as American corporations have been receiving tax credits for food waste donations to charities since the 1970s, with little evidence of any meaningful impact on either food insecurity or food waste. An estimated 32 million tonnes of food are wasted each year in the US, but donations to Feeding America (the national food bank network) diverted only 3.7 percent of this food to charitable programs in 2014. Moreover, despite extensive investments in public and charitable food assistance programs, food insecurity in the US is more than double that in Canada.