University of Guelph researcher talks food waste to Ontario classrooms

Feeding 9 Billion, food security, University of Guelph, Kelly Hodgins, food waste, Partners in Research, food literacy

Students at the University of Guelph take part in the Feeding 9 Billion challenge, co-coordinated by researcher Kelly Hodgins.

Out of the 4.5 kilograms of food the average southwestern Ontario household wastes per week, 64% is avoidable. Items such as egg shells, coffee grinds, and banana peels make up the other 36%.

“That’s atrocious,” says Kelly Hodgins, University of Guelph researcher and project coordinator of Feeding 9 Billion. “But, it also means there’s room for improvement. It leaves me inspired to do outreach and education because a little bit more awareness contributes to less food waste.”

Hodgins participated in a Partners in Research Live Event Wednesday afternoon and is gearing up for a second one next Tuesday for Grades 7-12. During the webinar, targeting K-Grade 6, Hodgins explained the impact on the earth as food travels from farm to table to (oftentimes) garbage bin.

Partners in Research aims to connect and engage youth from K-12 with researchers to create a greater awareness of important research across Canada. On Wednesday’s event, about 30 classrooms registered and students asked questions through live chat.

“For kids, there’s often an invisibility cloak surrounding what happens to food before it gets to them and what happens afterwards,” she says. “I really want students to be aware of the amount of energy and resources used, that food doesn’t just appear, but there’s a whole system that’s intensive for the earth. It’s just bad to throw it out after all that.

“It’s incredibly important for kids to have this understanding early on, it affects their future actions. It was really exciting to do. The chat box kept flashing; they had a whole bunch of questions and were really engaged.”

Hodgins’ own fascination with food waste and security began as a child growing up on a dairy farm in B.C.

She now works with the food waste research team at the University of Guelph—currently leading the research in Canada—focusing primarily on household food waste, why it happens, and how it can be avoided.

The cost of learned behaviours

The team takes a sociological approach to uncover the behaviours and beliefs surrounding food wasting habits through regular waste audits and studies.

“Some of these behaviours include buying too much, being persuaded by advertising to by double when you really only need one of something, having big fridges and forgetting about stuff,” says Hodgins. “We also tend to have a skewed ability to predict how much we’re going to eat during the week. We often do this big Saturday shop, then our busy lives get in the way and we order take out.”

The research team has discovered that people tend to waste less food if they’ve been forced to have a higher level of food awareness, either because they have a special diet, an allergy, or choose to eat organically.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the most wasteful processes is the production of meat, due to the amount of resources involved, while the least wasteful is backyard gardens.

“I personally feel bad about the waste of high water content products, like lettuce, tomatoes, and watermelons,” says Hodgins. “We’re shipping them from drought-stricken regions like California, and then wasting the water. It seems ludicrous.”

Combatting food waste on a global level

Hodgins highlighted some of the global initiatives in place to address worldwide food waste such as the U.K.’s Love Food Hate Waste program, which collects data and designs interventions targeting the household level of the supply chain. The program is already seeing a shift in food waste and behaviours, and has recently opened a chapter in Vancouver.

Policy changes in Canada include a two-day workshop in Guelph bringing together stakeholders from every aspect of the food value chain such as waste management, the city, policymakers, farmers, retail owners, and processes. The workshop looked at the existing challenges and barriers, and proposed an agenda on how to move forward.

“That was a really powerful, great initiative,” says Hodgins. “Typically, these conversations have been happening in silos, where you have a farmer saying they can’t do something because of the retailer policy, or a retailer saying they can’t because of another policy, and so on. This brought everyone together, identified gaps, and room for change.”

Many initiatives involve redefining food waste—such as Feeding the 5000 that involves serving the public a free meal out of food that would have been thrown out—and redirecting food once it’s considered waste.

“If you eat it, that’s best, but if it’s given to an animal, that’s second best,” Hodgins says. “Then there’s the compost. The worst is the landfill.”

As for other grassroots initiatives, such as the freegan movement or the 100-mile diet, Hodgins follows the everything-in-moderation principle.

“If you’re buying local, it depends on why you’re doing it,” she says. “Sometimes it’s more environmentally intensive to grow produce locally than it is to ship it from somewhere where it’s in growing season. There’s absolutely merit in supporting your local farmer and economy, but you can follow your love and only buy things in season here. You can get really excited about asparagus season or when the first strawberries are ready in June. Get more connected to the seasonality of food. Lots of places are now promoting this, such as pumpkin season, for example.”

Hodgins co-teaches the ICON Transdisciplinary Classroom at the university—an interdisciplinary course where students develop and implement innovative ideas about food security.

She will be taking part in Partners in Research’s next live event on Tuesday, October 18 geared to students between Grades 7 and 12. To register for this event, visit the registration page.

Tagged: Environment & Sustainability, Health & Wellbeing, Natural Resources

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