The Issue.

According to the UN, a third of the food produced in the world –1.3 billion tonnes— is lost or wasted each year. Canada isn’t an exception. In fact, 58% of all food produced in Canada – a spectacular 35.5 million tonnes – is lost or wasted.

Let’s start this Future We Want Canada series with Stephanie. Picture it: Vancouver, 2017. Here’s the tagline: A 15-year-old Canadian teenager tackles the global challenge of food waste, starting a food donation revolution in one of Canada’s biggest cities.

Stephanie sought to address the problem of food waste through the Metro Vancouver Sustainability Toolbox. Stephanie’s initiative, Sprout-Save-Share, began as a short-term project designed to divert food waste from local shops and bakeries from landfills by donating excess food to local charities. Stephanie’s initial goal was to donate 100 meals. In two years, the project has grown to 10,000 donations.

I sat down with Stephanie to learn more. Stephanie told me that she began her project by identifying her community’s largest sustainability challenge: food waste. She said, “I didn’t really understand why, in Vancouver, families don’t have food on the table when there’s such an abundance of food that’s just wasted. So, why not change that reality?”

I was shocked. Where did a 15-year-old teenager find the will to act on an issue that big? She told me, “Recognizing this issue, I saw it quite simply. It was the beginning of grade eleven, and I didn’t really think too much about it. I was just like, oh, I have this idea and I’ll just do it. When I started high school, my older sister was the president of the school’s environmental club. She told me I should join. I didn’t really care about the environment, but once I joined, I started to learn more and thought to myself, ‘This is something I should care about.’”

Her solution was simple: take excesss food from local shops and bakeries and donate them to charity. The reality: Not so simple. “We had a lot of trouble getting fresh produce, and contacting local producers were pretty difficult. With bread, it’s easy because bakeries always want to serve fresh and newly made product. So when we receive it, there’s still a couple of days left before the bread goes bad. But with fresh produce, it’s much harder.”

She continued, “Grocery stores have actually told us that they’ll lose money if they donate fresh produce a day before. Unless the produce goes bad, the store still has the potential to sell the produce and make money. That’s been the biggest issue: achieving that balance between local stores making money and making sustainable community-oriented decisions.”

But she persisted. After identifying the issue and solution, she began mobilizing her local community. She told me, “As a whole, it’s been great to see businesses interested in sustainability. I was surprised that businesses and community organizations were interested in partnering with us, because these kinds of projects require them to trust in youth to deliver. But our biggest success wasn’t the number of meals we were able to donate, but that we were able to mobilize young people. They really dedicated their time and energy to this initiative. And these young people have also gone off to participate in more climate initiatives.”

To conclude our conversation, I asked her what we could do to curb food waste. She said, “For local businesses and community organizations, invest in these projects. If you don’t donate, at least dispose of your food waste in a sustainable manner. One example is taking the plastic packaging off and properly composting food. A lot of businesses don’t do this because it takes time and money to throw away food waste properly. For consumers, ask your local businesses and demand more from them.”

“On an individual level, just be more mindful of food waste and prioritize sustainability in your day-to-day living. One friend told me to always grab one of the ‘ugly fruits’ when picking out your groceries to ensure the ugly fruits don’t go to waste.”

Her Message to Youth across Canada

“As youth, we have the responsibility to speak up and do something. We’re really good at being stubborn and not giving up – and we should use that. I often witness a vicious cycle where students feel that the adults in the room don’t listen or take you seriously, so they give up. Persist. To the adults in the room: Don’t just talk about how it’s great that we care about something. Answer our demands. Let’s not be a generation that’s too afraid to talk about what we’re passionate about, and let’s continue to demand action. Like our future depends on it. Because it does.”