Farmers are the original recyclers. Now, a circular food economy project in Guelph is helping farmers and businesses collaborate to find more ways to reduce waste.
Our Food Future aims to build a circular economy in the regional food supply chain, says Wellington County project manager Justine Dainard. The $10 million federally funded effort, launched in 2020, is a partnership between the City of Guelph and surrounding Wellington County.
As Dainard sees it, the current food system is primarily based on a linear model that moves in one direction: production, processing, distribution, consumption and disposal. This linear “buy-release-don’t capture” approach fails to restore nutrients in food by-products and waste, with financial, social and environmental costs.
Circular food systems create cooperative networks to keep nutrients circulating through the system, thus reducing the amount of waste going to landfill.
Building healthy, resilient communities by making nutritious food accessible and affordable to all is also an important part of our Food Future vision.
Dainard says it involves rethinking everything from how we produce food to how we distribute, sell and consume it. “System change is required.”
Our Food Future project identified three main goals at the beginning of the project:
- 50 percent increase in access to affordable, nutritious food.
- 50 new circular food businesses, co-ops and social enterprises.
- 50 percent increase in economic benefits by unlocking the value of waste.
Smart data, technology and innovation are integral components of our Food Future.
The project is a complex of dozens of partnerships, and Dainard says the second goal has already been achieved with more than 100 businesses involved.
Dainard shared some examples of Our Food Future initiatives so far.
Online Resource Exchange Marketplace connects businesses with waste to others with ideas to use it. Dainard says the marketplace can be used to help people locate goods, but also for services like additional cold storage. Most of the participating businesses are located in the Guelph, Waterloo, Toronto and Ottawa areas.
Grocery from SEED, Canada’s first online grocery store of choice, offers low prices and home delivery to make healthy, nutritious food accessible to everyone. Products come from many sources, including suppliers and local farmers. Some items are frozen meals made with leftover food that has been turned into delicious, nutrient-dense products and dishes instead of going to waste. “Equity is built right into the model,” says Dainard.
This year, the FEWD (Food Equity with Dignity) truck will hit the streets. The leftover food will be used by the chefs to prepare food, which will be sold on a sliding scale. In addition to turning pre-consumer food waste into a resource – high-quality food products sent to landfill for various reasons, such as aesthetics or lack of space to properly store and process them. FEWD Truck will provide employment and training for a team of both experienced chefs and those new to the food industry.
A farmer-centered soil health project called Experiential Acres is also being piloted this year because Dainard said they realized what was missing was an “on-ramp.”
Support includes small royalties for each farmer and grants to cover costs such as equipment rental so farmers can test their ideas.
James Craig raises grass-fed Speckle Park beef with his family near Arthur in northern Wellington County using regenerative agriculture. They sell beef directly to the consumer under the Blue Sky Beef label and also sell breeding stock.
To Craig, regenerative agriculture means farming with a net positive impact on the environment. “It’s about balancing what’s good for the animal, the environment, ourselves and the business,” he says. “It’s about making a deliberate decision to improve every year, not just for one season or one crop.”
Although many of the farming practices have been used by their family for generations, Craig says they have only been using the regenerative agriculture label since 2019.
Approved for a grant for the pilot plot this year, Craig believes the flexibility of Experimental Acres will encourage more creative innovation than traditional government funding programs, which are more prohibitive. “It’s what it takes,” he says. “Farmers can try new things and if they work, they can scale up.”
Dainard says Wellington County is partnering with neighboring Dufferin County, hoping the program will be easy for other counties looking to promote soil health.
While the Guelph-Wellington Our Food Future project is at the forefront of the circular food economy movement, Dainard says momentum is now picking up globally, with projects around the world.
As an example, business consultants at Anthesis Provision facilitated a partnership between Guelph-area farms and businesses in 2020 to create a circular meal using repurposed by-products and unavoidable waste.
It started with spent grain, a byproduct of fermenting locally grown grain to make beer at the Guelph brewery. Some of the spent grain went to a bakery to make sourdough bread, some to an insect farm to feed black soldier fly larvae used as feed in trout aquaculture, and fish waste was used as fertilizer by a potato producer. The resulting fish, potatoes, bread and beer were then served in Guelph restaurants.
The Resource Exchange Marketplace is an online business-to-business platform based in southern Ontario to connect producers and businesses who want to collaborate to reduce by-product waste.