Local food system 'breaking': Okanagan chef highlights why piles of discarded produce point to bigger problem

Local food system 'breaking'

Casey Richardson

An Okanagan chef is calling for more to be done to combat food waste, wondering how large amounts of unsold produce routinely discarded at local farms could be put to better use.

Chef Ned Bell has long been vocal about utilizing local ingredients at his restaurant at the Naramata Inn and through his appointment as Buy BC's new “Chef Ambassador.”

Bell was travelling through the Southern Interior recently and noticed an abundance of local produce discarded in piles near local farm stands. It led Bell to connect with some of the farmers he works with and dig into the issue.

“It just concerns me, and it got me kind of thinking about if this is in this small community, this must be going on all over the place,” he said.

According to the Government of BC, about 40 per cent of produce ends up in a landfill, where it breaks down to produce significant greenhouse gasses.

Bell said the farmers pointed out how it could be a number of different problems, such as more food being grown than was able to be sold, set aside as a plan for composting or a lack of economic options for a farmer to be able to donate.

“What it really said to me was, more of us need to eat these seasonal vegetables that are being grown. They're delicious, they're healthy, and they're local, and they support a community and a farm and a family or multiple farms and multiple families and multiple communities.”

Local Motive — a South Okanagan organic grocery venture — store owner and farmer Thomas Tumbach said focusing on purchasing from local growers can support a local food system, which over time could even out the issues with overproduction.

“As a farmer, you're always trying to build your market. So inherently, you have to have a little bit more than what you can actually sell in order to make sure you can fill your orders. So really, it's a common problem for farmers to have more than they can sell. And it's not necessarily a sign that the farmer isn't doing a good job,” he said.

“When there's a huge amount of extra waste, that's a problem that the farmer wants to avoid. Because if they're overproducing huge volumes, they're losing money and they've already paid to grow that crop. They've tended the crop, they've paid for the seed, the fertilizer, they've taken up space on their farm.”

While a farmer may look to donate to a food bank or organization that helps provide fresh produce to those in need, the system isn’t set up for easy transport.

“The farms don't have the time. They don't want to waste the gas and effort to getting that wasted crop to donate it,” Tumbach said. “It's a crop they're already losing money on. They don't want to spend more money to give it away as well. So if there was more support to subsidize the distribution of wasted food, that would certainly help as a part of the solution.”

Research from Simon Fraser University published in 2021, found that food waste on farms could be combatted with better policies to help farmers face everyday challenges.

The team conducted 40 interviews with farmers and stakeholders in the food and agricultural industry and found issues of overproduction, gaps in infrastructure, rejected produce due to nit-picky aesthetic values, along with economic and environmental reasons for farm-level losses.

"Solutions to reduce food loss on the farm in Canada tend to focus on charitable actions such as encouraging food recovery (Nikkel et al., 2019) or through tax incentives for donations (Kinach et al., 2019). Kinach et al. observed a mismatch in perceptions between policymakers and the realities faced by the farmers who are expected to donate. Their informants felt that the 25 per cent tax credit offered did not offset the logistical costs of donating surplus food," the paper, published in the journal Resources, Conservation and Recycling, reads, including citations to previous papers.

Since 2019, the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction has provided over $26 million to poverty reduction and food security projects throughout BC, which includes funding to FoodBanksBC for its perishable food recovery program.

But connecting farmers to the programs in a way that does not add to their costs is the key.

Tumbach pointed to an organization in Toronto that regularly travels around the Greater Toronto Area working with a variety of grocery stores, restaurants and farms; picking up the donated unused and unsold food that is still perfectly edible for their pay-what-you-can grocery store.

Bell referenced the Quest Food Exchange program in Vancouver, which is a food recovery and redistribution not-for-profit organization that provides healthy and affordable groceries to members across the Lower Mainland.

While the Okanagan does utilize the Food Mesh program, Fruit Tree Projects and gleaning organizations, these do not translate well to providing support back to the farmers.

“The farmers half the time would love to give the product away, the challenge sometimes is, who comes in and picks it up? Because sometimes these farms are in the middle of nowhere,” Bell said.

“How does it get to where it needs to go? ...The idea [is] having transportation, or some sort of program or system that's willing to pick it up, or that maybe is a central drop-off, or some kind of community kitchen that could take this product and repurpose it into something.”

And if a farmer wants the opportunity to utilize their products in a different way, that is where Summerland’s next big project could come into play.

A proposed South Okanagan "food hub" would provide a space that could connect food and agri-tech entrepreneurs to resources, including an active shared production space for wet products like salsas and condiments and a dry space for fruit snacks and other such products.

“Throughout the entire Okanagan and Similkameen region, there's a lack of processing equipment for small-scale food processing, despite the number of farmers we have as well as fruit being produced within our region,” said Brad Dollevoet, director of development services for the District of Summerland.

“Food hubs are a concept that is for producers to access commercial production space, so kitchens or commercial processing facilities. Those facilities could help farmers take a product that is in excess and make something with added value to it, which would then be able to be sold over a longer period of time either as a dehydrated, frozen, or canned — those types of products,” Tumbach said, in support of the concept.

One of the environmental benefits the district included in their application is utilizing fruit that would have been culled for juices, jams or jellies, rather than sending it to a landfill or an organic processing facility.

The project has been in the works for over eight years and now has a business plan, adopted by council, and a secured land and building partner, Garnet Valley Ranch.

“All of that has been wrapped up now into a detailed plan that we're providing to grant funding agencies. So that's where we're at right now is we're trying to secure grant funding from higher-level governments, so the province being one as well as the federal government,” Dollevoet explained.

“There is a lot of interest in this…There are upwards of nine local businesses from our region that actually want to have equity stakes in this project. So like they're actually willing to provide us funding for it as well.

“We can't move forward with just their contributions, but that shows a level of commitment that there is demand for this type of facility from the business community.”

The Ministry of Agriculture and Food said that BC has committed to a goal of halving food waste by 2030, including efforts to prevent, rescue and recover wasted food. Multiple ministries are involved in efforts to reduce the problem of food waste and strengthen provincial food security.

In the meantime, there is an urgency to support local and in-season produce, rather than just opt for what is always stocked in the aisles of big grocery stores.

Bell said he knows this issue isn’t black and white, and other factors like accessibility and financial circumstances impact what people may buy, but there is a hope that with everyone trying to make local choices just a little more frequently, it would make an impact.

“Can we not look to the local growers that are better all around our region and support those people? Because often, some of the big box retailers are actually carrying those ingredients, we just need to look a little harder, whether it be for the BuyBC logo or local butcher,” he said.

“I think food is breaking. If we don't turn back from that behaviour, we're going to have a really basic food system that is going to lose farmers, lose diversity.

“Whether you live in Summerland or you live in Naramata or you live in the Cowichan Valley or Abbotsford, let's celebrate our place. It doesn't mean stop eating things from somewhere else, it just means you do five per cent better.”

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