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Have Your Say: How do we stop wasting so much food?

Craig and Marc Kielburger founded Free The Children and Me to We. Their biweekly Brain Storm column taps experts and readers for solutions to social issues.

The food was scrumptious. But it just kept on coming.

A friend was visiting a rural community in India where we'd recently built a school. Thanks to vigilant parenting and an above-average appetite, he had always finished every morsel of food on his plate. But when chowing down in India, as soon as he polished off a plate of curried dal and rice, a fresh serving arrived. Eventually he was uncomfortably stuffed and looked to his host. "If you don't leave a little bit," came the whisper in return, "the cook assumes you're still hungry. It's the custom."

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Back in Canada, our friend's dedication to finishing his food appears to be a lost ethic — the little bits we're leaving on our plates are getting bigger, and it's not because we're being polite. We waste literally tonnes of food — seven billion kilograms a year, worth an estimated $27 billion. That's two per cent of our GDP, and it's slightly more than all the food we import from abroad.

Half of that waste happens in our own kitchens — so if we want to save on groceries, we could start by shopping smarter. We're so conditioned to get the most value for our grocery dollar that it's next to impossible to pass up on a five-pound bag of carrots, a 12-pack of spaghetti sauce or a super-sized bin of hummus. And if we're hungry when we're shopping, there's no telling how big a steak we'll buy for next week's supper (and subsequently forgotten in the back of the fridge).

We're also more relaxed about food waste than our grandparents' generation. The milk expires tomorrow? Better not risk it. That red pepper's got a few wrinkles? Chuck it. Food is relatively cheap and exorbitantly available in our modern grocery aisles, so it's hard to consider the impact of wasting it.

But the organic waste rotting in Canada's landfills generate 20 per cent of our methane emissions, which are 20 times more potent contributors to climate change than CO2. And given that 70 per cent of the world's water is used in agriculture, we could save close to the equivalent of Lake Ontario if we cut global food waste in half.

More directly, the $1,500 that the average Canadian household loses in food waste could certainly be out to better use, including by our country's food banks.

But how do we cut back on our waste? Start buying the bruised peaches at the grocery store? Ordering from the children's menu? Eating the mouldy cheese at the back of the fridge? How do we re-create that old Canadian custom of treating the morsels on our plates with the respect they deserve?

This week's question: How can we reduce our personal and collective food waste?

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THE EXPERTS:

Jen Rustemeyer and Grant Baldwin, producer and director of Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story

"As a culture, we need to truly value food and all the work and resources that go into making it. Taking only what we need and eating everything we take is a good start. At home, planning meals based on what we already have, allowing people to serve their own portions, and packing leftovers for lunch can make a big difference."

Dr. David Sparling, chair of agri-food innovation at Western University's Ivey School of Business in London, ON:

"Just because something is past its best by date doesn't mean that it isn't still fine. Learn more about which products can go past their sell by or best by dates."

Dr. Martin Gooch, CEO of Value Chain Management International in Guelph, ON

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"Like companion plants, make sure that you do not store products together that will negatively impact each other's quality. For example, produce that releases ethylene as it ripens [like bananas, pears and tomatoes] can make ethylene-sensitive produce [like apples, lettuce and cucumbers] become spotted, soft or mealy."

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