NAIT reduces food waste by using imperfect veggies

NAIT leads the way with project to reduce food waste

Regardless of what a vegetable looks like, if it isn’t rotten it tastes just as good as another.

This spring, NAIT started using “imperfect” produce in meals on campus. The polytechnic’s food services department, eat AT NAIT, uses local tomatoes and cucumbers that don’t make the cut at most grocery stores due to inconsistent shapes, colours or blemishes. Though the flavor is unaffected, those vegetables would end up in the trash.

That’s a practice staff at NAIT would like to see changed on campus and beyond.

“We’re a society that’s based on waste being a normal part of our thinking,” says Kim Allen, buyer for the department. “There’s no reason why we can’t take a different perspective.”

“I think it’s our responsibility,” says manager Gloria Booth (Food and Nutrition Management ’00). “When we talk [about] sustainability, this is the future.”

Tackling food waste

In Canada, $31 billion worth of food is wasted each year.

To make an impact locally, Allen works with Gerad Wagenaar to source imperfect vegetables. He facilitates the sale of produce from Alberta farms to organizations throughout the province. The tomatoes and cucumbers NAIT receives are from Big Marble Farms, just outside of Medicine Hat.

“It’s still perfectly fine food,” Wagenaar says. “We’re trying to limit the disposal of ‘number 2’ [vegetables]. It feels good that it won’t go to waste.”

"It feels good that it won’t go to waste.”

NAIT is encouraging other organizations in Edmonton to limit food waste. Allen is a member of Alberta Flavour, an initiative of Northlands that works to get Albertans consuming more local food. She’ll report back to the group about the impact of the imperfect produce initiative at NAIT. In addition to Northlands, Alberta Flavour includes members such as Alberta Health Services and Shaw Conference Centre.

“We’re trialing it on their behalf,” Allen says. Once she shares her impressions of the project at NAIT, Alberta Flavour members may decide to work imperfect produce into their food planning. There’s potential for the polytechnic to share local farming connections or shipments of produce. “When they’re seeing it’s happening in other large institutes, it’s encouraging for them to get on board.”

Going local

It was an exciting day for NAIT staff when the first shipment arrived from Big Marble Farms. Each delivery will vary in size, depending on how many ‘number 2’ vegetables are left unchosen by grocery stores, but the polytechnic has been receiving roughly 225 kilograms (500 pounds) of tomatoes and 110 kg (250 lbs) of cucumbers every few weeks.

“You couldn’t believe how nice this stuff is,” says eat AT NAIT executive chef Lesley Ward (Cooking ’95). “Sometimes the flesh of a cucumber looks a little wrinkly but, inside, it’s beautiful. Once you slice or chop it, you would never know.”

“It’s the most beautiful ‘ugly’ food I’ve ever seen.”

Allen and Booth are excited to see the program grow. While NAIT is currently using only imperfect tomatoes and cucumbers there’s the opportunity to expand and find other Alberta farmers to provide other kinds of produce. Allen says her department aims to eventually get all produce from Alberta instead of California, now the main source.

Since local, irregular produce is cheaper, the initiative will save money. But Booth says that isn’t their primary motivation. She appreciates the principles behind the practice just as much, as well as the potential long-term benefits for the polytechnic and - as more organizations follow suit - perhaps the province as well. This makes it easy for her to see beyond the funny shapes, off colours or odd blemishes.

“It’s the most beautiful ‘ugly’ food I’ve ever seen,” says Booth. “If any of us have ever had a garden, we’ve seen a tomato or cucumber that looks odd. We never let that bother us, right?”

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