The circular meal: thinking about food differently

Farmers, restaurateurs and food producers join together to create a meal out of waste

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Fish poop, bugs and beer waste aren’t the top of mind ingredients when one contemplates a gourmet meal. But they’re exactly what went into “upcycled” dinners served at three Guelph restaurants this fall as part of a pilot project to reduce food waste and encourage everyone in the food chain to change their thinking about waste.

Why it matters: According to the National Zero Waste Council, the average Canadian household wastes 140 kilograms of food per year which translates into 2.2 million tonnes annually. Reducing waste across the supply chain lowers costs and improves the sustainability of food production.

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Guelph-based Provision Coalition is a collaborating partner in the Our Future Food Initiative in Guelph-Wellington, whose goal it is to create Canada’s first circular food economy. That includes increasing access to nutritious food by 50 per cent, building 50 circular businesses and collaborations, and increasing the value of waste by 50 per cent by 2025.

Those core objectives helped bring together eight businesses in Guelph and Wellington County into a project called Re(PURPOSE), says Provision Coalition CEO Cher Mereweather.

“The driver was really about thinking about food differently and what else we could do with waste streams – could we create a whole meal out of it?” says Mereweather, noting the start came this spring with one of Provision’s clients, Wellington Brewery, which needed a solution for their spent grain, an unavoidable waste stream of brewing.

Provision made a connection with insect producer, Oreka Solutions, which found a way to incorporate the spent grain into feed for their black soldier flies. The insects then became an ingredient in fish feed for Izumi Aquaculture, which grows Steelhead Salmon in rehabilitated gravel pits and were able to recapture the fish manure into a natural fertilizer for Smoyd Potato Farms.

Some of the brewery’s spent grain also went to Guelph bakery Grain Revolution, which worked with yeast producer Escarpment Labs to figure out how to make sourdough bread from waste grain and yeast.

Cured trout was another food sold at Guelph-area restaurants.
photo: Provision Coalition

All those pieces culminated in three meals sold at three Neighbourhood Group restaurants in Guelph in October: sourdough-breaded trout and fries at the Wooly Pub, hot smoked trout sandwich and chips at Park Grocery Deli and Bar, and cured steelhead trout at Miijidaa Café and Bistro.

The unique nature of the project attracted national media attention, thanks in part to some creative marketing and PR around the idea of a meal created from waste. The meals were so successful the group is now looking at the possibility of turning the pilot into something more permanent.

According to Mereweather, the project has encouraged all the partners to think about their individual businesses differently and to consider new uses for their byproducts that could add new value and contribute to a more sustainable food system.

For Wayne Izumi, that’s an outcome near and dear to his heart, but the project has also had a more immediate positive impact for his business. Before COVID, the Steelhead salmon he grows in old quarries were sold mostly to high end restaurants, a market that nosedived once the pandemic hit.

“This project has helped with sales and in COVID times, sales are good,” he said. “But it also fits perfectly with our long-term strategy to address sustainability and repurposing and reducing waste. I’ve been in the fertilizer business all my life, and this is a nice segue to capture waste from our farm and use it to make fertilizer.”

Izumi Aquaculture currently has two sites, one west of Toronto and the other east, with plans to expand production. His long term vision is to have fish farm sites close to major population centres, so Ontarians can eat locally grown instead of imported fish.

For Provision Coalition, the long term goal for the food system is to shift the mindset around waste reduction and look at the supply chain and byproducts that are currently being disposed of to create new products and opportunities.

According to Mereweather, the organization is now exploring investment into creating an organic materials marketplace to expand the opportunities for waste repurposing.

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