What COVID-19 has taught us about long-term care
Building an equal future for women in Atlantic Canada
SaltWire Selects: Stories you don't want to miss
SPECIAL REPORT: Facets of family violence
Have you tried the SaltWire News app?
UPDATED: COVID-19 news and numbers
Continuing coverage: Mass shooting in Nova Scotia
What's working for businesses in 2021?
Six years ago, Judy Loo attended a UN conference on agricultural diversity and sustainability in Italy.
It changed her life.
"That conference was a wake-up call for me about the food waste around the globe, and at home, in Canada," she said.
A 2019 study by Second Harvest concluded a whopping 58 per cent of food produced in Canada - 35.5 million tonnes – is lost or wasted each year.
And much of that fresh produce doesn't make it to our plates because of the esthetic - the products are simply misshapen or ugly.
More than 32 per cent of wasted food could have been rescued to support communities across Canada, the report said.
Loo is a farmer at a sixth-generation family-owned Springwillow Farm in Kensington, P.E.I.
"We are very conscious about food waste. We waste little to no vegetables, no matter what the shape is," she says.
Because they own a small farm, they can use everything they grow, she said.
"Some stuff that we can't sell to people will go to our hens or our flower garden."
High utility of produce
Philip Thornley has learned how to deal with misshapen food in his 43 years of running Campbellton Berry Farm in Newfoundland.
One of his farm's main products is tender and soft strawberries.
"If there are misshapen strawberries, they will be sold as a frozen item. If it doesn't sell frozen, it'll be jammed and sold as jam, and the rest goes into the compost and becomes fertilizers on the farm itself," he explains.
"If the strawberries are not suitable to sell to customers because they are misshapen, I am happy to put them in my dessert."
Thornley emphasizes such a high utility of produce is possible because he has a relatively small farm operation.
"The waste simply becomes another revenue stream for the farm. We don't truck it to the dumpster. All the waste is used. Some things are fed to the animals; some go into the compost."
In Newfoundland, farmers use resources mindfully, said Thornley.
"We have to make sure our operations are small enough and distributed enough so we don't have concentrated big piles of waste that can't be absorbed in the surrounding land area."
But even small farms have to tackle the consequences of their food waste. The solution? Putting it back in the ground. Compost amounts to tonnes by the time the season's over and is a valuable addition to the fields, said Thornley.
"However, we do have to be careful that the cost of labour to process the compost is not more than the use we would make of it," he said.
While some farms are trying to tackle food waste, some operations can be almost zero-waste due to the nature of the products they grow.
John Robichaud owns a small Evermore Mushroom farm in Gaspereau, N.S.
"I was very attracted to the idea of growing mushrooms because of how low impact they are," he said.
The mushrooms grow in hardwood sawdust, which becomes a hard block in the end and is completely compostable, Robichaud explains.
"You can utilize everything," he says. "The turnover is pretty fast because the lifecycle is short."
However, even the slightest temperature change can mean only smaller mushrooms grow. They're perfectly good, he says, but not as cosmetically pleasant.
"In that case, we are drying them and donating to food program Better School Food Nova Scotia," says Robichaud.
"We just donated 10 pounds small, dried mushrooms to a local elementary school. If we happen to have a surplus, we give fresh to people who can't afford mushrooms at regular retail price. And people love mushroom compost."
Small farm advantage
Marc Schurman has found personal connections while selling produce in a small community.
The third-generation farmer at Atlantic Grown Organics, locally known as Schurman's family farm on P.E.I., believes Atlantic Canadians have an advantage in food waste, as small farms create connections within communities.
"Here are more people who don't mind buying something crooked because there's a demand for products with discounts," he says.
He grows a variety of greens and vegetables for the local market and Maritime chain stores.
He has several local customers who buy misshapen and wonky produce, including Buddhism Monastery. He also sells some on roadside tables.
"Customers don't mind if the tomato is misshapen or cucumber is crooked because crooked cucumber tastes the same."
No nutritional difference
The statistic on food waste due to esthetics is not as assuring.
Produce that's left unharvested or is rejected because of its looks is responsible for 10 per cent of food wasted in Canada each year.
Sometimes people mistakenly believe deformed produce has less nutritional value and instead favour their cosmetically-pleasant cousins, said Shamika Green-Rose, a dietic intern at UPEI.
"There's no nutritional difference between funky-looking food and what you see in a commercial," she said.
"The only nutritional value difference can be because of the ripeness. If it's just a dense in a product from processing, picking, moving from place to place, there's no nutritional difference."
Large corporations have unrealistic high standards on vegetables and fruits they are selling, which leave out good produce just based on looks, she said.
"I'd say get that potato with a bruise on it. They are the same as the one without a bruise, and you'll get the same benefits from it."
And while big corporations still largely do not accept wonky products, local businesses are picking up on the idea of delivering fresh, misshaped produce at great prices.
The Freshest is a Middle Eastern-owned produce store in Charlottetown, P.E.I., where Burhan and Luba Kaboush sell exotic produce from the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa catering to the exponentially growing international community on the Island while also having various Canadian and local products.
When they have fresh goods that look funny or get a little soft but are still in edible condition, they sell them for less than a dollar or give them away.
"Sometimes we can tell who can afford something and who can't, so when that happens, we give it away," said Luba Kaboush.
"We have been there. We came and started from zero, and we had no support here. We see a lot of immigrant students, and we see them as our own kids from different countries, and we want to help."
This way, Freshest distributes food to the vulnerable in the community and creates very little food waste.
Since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, Freshest has given away 475 boxes of fresh produce that anyone in need can pick up.
"Each box of a first grade produce cost us around $70. We gave fresh food, vegetables, grains, oils, everything you'd need to make meals for a week," said Kaboush.