On a gloomy Wednesday in March, Artscape Wychwood Barns twinkled with fairy lights and beckoned with good smells.

A modest and mixed crowd drifted between tables at Trashed & Wasted – an event held to promote food waste awareness – grazing canapés prepared by Oliver & Bonacini, the sustainable fishmonger Hooked and other well-known local purveyors.

Peter Sanagan, who owns a popular eponymous butcher shop in Kensington Market, coaxed an apprehensive trio into sampling dainty open-faced sandwiches topped with puréed lambs’ brains and tender slices of pickled tongue from the same fleecy infant animal; things they’d never, ever buy on their own in a butcher shop.

“It’s blended with mustard, so it doesn’t taste like brain,” Sanagan assured his guests. They mumbled mid-chew that it wasn’t so bad after all. (It was delicious.)

At a booth built from produce skids, Kim Montgomery Rawlings dished out fried chicken butts. The commonly trimmed, nutrient-packed nubbins were slashed with mustard from her restaurant, Montgomery’s, and were highly addictive between gulps of a crisp pale ale brewed by Rainhard with leftover rye and sourdough from Blackbird.

Everyone hovered around a simple, stand-out snack from Actinolite: a deeply flavourful loaf of bread made from the spent grain and wort from Burdock Brewery. It was smeared with butter made from whey, the often-discarded byproduct of cheese and yogurt.

Near the exit was a weathered cornucopia of perfectly edible produce donated by an urban food distribution centre: heads of lettuce with wilted outer leaves, a tumble of mottled okra, bruised tomatoes and wrinkled banana peppers for people to load into paper bags and carry home, gratis.

With just over an hour left of the event, heaps of unclaimed vegetables remained, an eerie reminder of just how much food gets rejected or scrapped.

Unless it’s putrefying on our doorsteps, the nearly 200 kilos of food each Canadian wastes every year is mostly out of sight and out of mind, like a half-eaten burrito shoved to the back of the fridge.

As food waste becomes a more widely publicized issue, the way in which we’re influenced to think about it matters. Headlines leading up to Trashed & Wasted, urging readers to eat “garbage” for a cause, were effective clickbait. But Brock Shepherd – who organized Trashed & Wasted in conjunction with Second Harvest, a longstanding food rescue and redistribution charity – acknowledged that the term “food waste” needs a new marketing spin.

Why and how is there so much wasted food when there are so many people who are hungry?

 “Get rid of the word waste altogether and talk about food loss and food rescue. I think that’s something people can understand: we’re losing food,” he says. “Waste is always going to have a connotation with garbage, but ‘lost’ means missing out on something because you’re letting it go bad.”

Recovering otherwise squandered sustenance isn’t necessarily about dumpster diving or noshing on trash. It’s about mindfulness and stepping outside of habit and privilege to use ingredients to their full nutritional potential, whether that’s via canning or committing to eat leftovers for a few days. There’s nothing gross about it, but what is gross is the incredible amount of food that rots while people need to be fed.

“There’s this hot topic of food waste, but I think that the duality is the question of why and how is there so much wasted food when there are so many people who are hungry,” says Kim Montgomery Rawlings, who owns Montgomery’s at Queen and Ossington with her husband, chef Guy Rawlings.

“Food waste should actually not exist. There’s enough business opportunity with these food products that if we were mindful, we could make sure it was all utilized.”

“Food waste” might be an emerging buzzword, but it isn’t a fad. It’s a problem, and most of us are complicit.

Stats from Value Chain Management International indicate that $31 billion worth of food is wasted in Canada every year. Most of this takes place at the consumer level (consider all the rubbery carrots, cartons of petrified takeout and curdled milk we’ve tossed over the years).

Accustomed to the convenience of prepared meals and the luxury of ample portion sizes, we order extra dishes to flood our social media feeds with bounty and then leave them half-touched on the table. We let an expiry date tell us when to throw away an unopened can of tuna instead of employing our senses. In a culture of excess, we’re conditioned to view food as disposable.

What we physically drop into a bag destined for the dump (or hopefully, the compost heap) is just the end of the food waste chain. Food is spoiled at every turn: in fields and greenhouses, warehouses and factories, supermarkets, cafeterias and of course, in restaurants.

Other developed countries are rallying to rescue food. Last year, France banned food disposal in grocery stores. A voluntary food waste reduction program in the U.K. saved participating businesses £67 million over the course of three years. Awareness initiatives and Wefood, a chain of supermarkets that sells surplus food and “ugly” produce at discount prices, have helped Denmark cut food waste by 25 per cent in five years.

Mairah Llanes

But despite its necessity and economic importance (which runs along agricultural, distributional, manufacturing, service and consumer capillaries), food has never really been a political priority in Canada. That’s not to say that it can’t become one.

Locally, the Toronto Food Policy Council (TFPC), a subcommittee of the Board of Health, has been working since the early ’90s to advance food policies and projects focused on health, diversity and sustainability. Currently, the TFPC is developing an initiative targeted at restaurants in an effort to gauge and heighten awareness about food waste in the industry.

Montgomery Rawlings, who became an elected board member of the TFPC last October – two months after she became a restaurateur – notes that there’s been surprisingly little dialogue between the council and food industry until recently.

“Restaurant” is a broad term – a rural Tim Hortons franchise has little in common with an uptown steak house – which is probably why there are no exact numbers (that I could find, anyway) on how much edible food is discarded in Canadian restaurants.

Consumers are the leading food-losers, but restaurants and other service outlets on whose conveniences we depend (hotels, caterers, airlines, the prepared foods section of a grocery store) are also hemorrhaging foodstuffs. Establishing lines of communication between the restaurant industry and policy makers is an important step to take. 

Food is viewed as expendable because we’ve become disconnected with where and who it comes from

“This initiative is not trying to shun restaurants for being huge food wasters. It’s more like an opportunity to be more self-aware of where food waste might be happening within their business lines and promoting the fact that if you’re mindful about your waste then you can get economic returns,” says Montgomery Rawlings.

Food is viewed as expendable because we’ve become disconnected with where and who it comes from. Which is why agricultural connection is a core value at Maizal, a Mexican restaurant in Liberty Village that operates at zero food waste.

Every week, owner Iván Wadgymar drives to Cavaleiro Farm, an agricultural collective in Schomberg, Ont., with the trunk of his car stuffed with organic waste from Maizal.

What the fowl, sheep, pigs and donkey don’t devour gets composted and turned back into the land, where Wadgymar grows a portion of corn that he grinds and forms into tortillas for Maizal. He also cultivates other Mexican staples like beans, amaranth, epasote, squash, flowers and tomatillos for salsa verde. (In 2015, Wadgymar won the Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence for his efforts.)

Lately, he’s been taking patrons and staff members along for the ride. He considers it his responsibility as a farmer and a restaurateur to instill a holistic food knowledge in others.

Liberty Village's Maizal restaurant operates at zero waste by recycling all its organic scraps on a farm in Schomberg, Ont. 

Mariah Llanes

“It’s very cultural here to just leave food on your plate, but if you go to other parts of the world, it’s blasphemy,” he says. “I think we’re made to believe that we have excess food. You go to a supermarket and you’d never think that the world would run out of food, it’s so stocked. But when you look to other parts of the world, you know what famine is and what food shortages are. It brings a whole different perspective.”

For Justin Cournoyer, chef and owner of Actinolite, reclaiming a relationship with the land and those who tend it is the cornerstone to grasping food’s worth.

Cournoyer works closely with local organic and biodynamic farmers and he also grows, forages and preserves ingredients for his restaurant’s seasonal menus.

“Really, it comes back to respecting the land and the people who are providing us with this food. A hundred and fifty years ago, you were lucky to get a little bit of meat on a Sunday and nobody would waste it,” he says. “Now, the value of our food is so low that we’re wasteful with it. At Actinolite, anything we touch we think of a way to utilize it.”

This focused approach to seasonal, local cuisine requires a lot of preparation, but for Cournoyer it’s the surest way to respect food and to live sustainably.

He dehydrates, pickles, ferments and infuses, making miso from meat scraps, flavour-packed oil from blackcurrant wood and vegetable seasoning from fermented and dried celery root. These unique flavours are applied year-round to whatever’s in season.

“We need to go back to basics,” he says.

“Start over and connect with our land, learn from our mistakes but utilize our technology and our culture to move forward.”

While preparation can be a golden route to sustainability, it can also be a conduit to wastefulness.

While preparation can be a golden route to sustainability, it can also be a conduit to wastefulness. When restaurants make too much food, it often ends up in the garbage.

Second Harvest has done an excellent job of redistributing meat, dairy and produce to those in need for over 30 years, but it’s against the law to donate prepared foods for health reasons. Feedback, an emerging Toronto-based technology, may help narrow that gap.

The app, which aims to launch this summer, would alert users to bakeries, lunch spots and pizza joints with remaining food just before closing time. Users would pre-pay at a deep discount and then fill a biodegradable container with what’s left.

Feedback incentivizes both user (with discounted food) and restaurant owner (with partial payment for what would have otherwise been a loss), but co-founder Josh Waters is really hoping to spark awareness.

“People might initially download the app as a way to save on a sandwich or a slice of pizza, but then start thinking, ‘Wow, there’s so much food that would have been thrown out if I didn’t come for it,” he says.

So what if the food waste problem was repackaged as economic opportunity? If we start looking at every swampy box of greens as a monetary loss, then maybe we’ll start paying attention to the crop of advantages that comes with respecting our food.

We’ll be healthier eaters and more creative cooks with lighter carbon footprints and a deepened satisfaction in simplicity.

That’s an opportunity worth rescuing.