The First Sixteen Podcast - EP 012

The First Sixteen is Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s new podcast series that explores the freshest ideas in agriculture and food. Each episode explores a single topic in depth—digging deep into new practices, innovative ideas, and their impacts on the industry. Learn about Canada’s agricultural sector from the people making the breakthroughs and knocking down the barriers! Farmers and foodies, scientists and leaders, and anyone with an eye on the future of the sector—this podcast is for you! A new episode is published each month.

Episode 012 - Food Waste Reduction Challenge: The Next Level

Over 300 ideas were submitted to the Food Waste Reduction Challenge. Twenty-four of the best ideas were selected for funding. Now it’s time to test their concepts and compete for the $1.5M grand prize. In this episode, jury member and celebrity chef, Bob Blumer, tells us about the selection process. He also shares tips on reducing food waste at home. Mohamed Yassine from Impact Canada joins the conversation to tell us what’s next.


Bob: I think that every semi-finalist is sitting on an idea that will be very impactful and to a degree, they're all winners already, of course, they are all on the verge of doing great things. And that's what will make the challenge really difficult for the jurors in the next round, is deciding who gets to go forward and who doesn't.

But the good thing is that the way this the challenge has been designed is that those twenty-four semi-finalists have all been granted one hundred thousand dollars for their businesses. And whether they move forward or not, their business is still moving forward. So that's a win for all Canadians.

I do really applaud the Canadian government for creating this competition because it's a hard world out there in the private sector. And sometimes organizations are so focused on what they're doing that it takes something like a large prize purse being dangled in front of them to make them stop and think, oh, you know, we're doing something that we could apply to the world of food waste. This one hundred thousand dollar first round prize, a million dollar final prize is pretty good incentive to put our heads together and see if we can come up with a solution.

Sara: That was Bob Blumer, self-described Gastronaut, award winning tv series creator, cookbook author, Guinness record holder, ambassador for Second Harvest as well as the national Love Food Hate Waste campaign (phew)…..and for our purposes one of the jury members for the Food Waste reduction challenge. 24 semi-finalists for the first round of the challenge were recently announced. Welcome to the First Sixteen I am your host Sara Boivin Chabot. We will hear more from Bob a little later. My co-host Kirk is off this week, but I am joined by Mohamed Yassine from Impact Canada to help with this story. Hi Mohamed

Mohamed: Hi. Thank you for having me again.

Sara: Pleasure to have you back on the show. We previously talked to Mohamed and Denise Phillipe from The National Zero Waste Council just as the challenge launched. It’s a great interview. Take a listen, but it’s not required for today’s story. Mohamed, you’re a fellow from Impact Canada. Impact Canada helps departments accelerate the adoption of innovative funding approaches to deliver meaningful results to Canadians. In Canada, over half of the food supply goes to waste each year and almost $50 billion of that wasted food is avoidable. To help inspire new ideas and engage diverse perspectives, we launched the Food Waste Reduction Challenge in November 2020, asking innovators to deliver game-changing solutions to this long-standing and complex issue.

The challenge, a first for AAFC, is looking for high impact solutions in 4 distinct categories or streams and the first two, business models that prevent food waste and business models that divert food waste just announced 24 semi-finalists. How did the first round go?

Mohamed: The first two streams went really well. We got a large and positive response from the innovation community. We got a total of three hundred and forty-three applications and there were many creative solutions across the different segments of the food supply chain, we have from the farm to the consumer at home.

Sara: Who applied?

Mohamed: So what was really interesting was the diversity in applicants. Solutions came from very different places, including from young students who learned about the problem and they decided to do something about it. Actually, around one fourth of applicants were youth under 30. There were also many start-ups that had a solution and they were looking for a boost to go to market and deploy their solutions. There were also researchers and academic settings, larger enterprises, not for profits, etc. Around like 60 percent of applicants had never applied to a government funding program before.

Sara: Is 343 a lot of applications?

Mohamed: Actually, the food waste reduction challenge broke the record in terms of number of applications.

Sara: Great! Can you tell us a little about the Jury process for the challenge?

Mohamed: So, all Impact Canada challenges have an external jury that assesses applications based on the assessment criteria and they recommend winners at each stage of the challenge. The jury for the first two streams of the food waste reduction challenge was composed of 13 very outstanding professionals. They were very highly recognized in their fields. They were passionate about innovation and really solving the problem of food waste. They also bring very diverse perspectives to the discussion. They covered a wide range of expertise like entrepreneurship, technology, social and environmental aspects, behavioral change, consumer behavior, etc. They were very motivated really to help innovators and they had very difficult decisions to make. But we really think they made the best decisions within the parameters of their competition.

Sara: That’s were Bob Blumer, who we heard at the top of the show, comes in. We wanted to hear from one of the jurists. Bob before we get to talking about the challenge and your involvement in food waste reduction advocacy can we start with your passion for food? What drew you to a career centered around food?

Bob : I've always believed that food can elevate the quality of life, and I always encourage young people to learn how to cook as I did when I was a punk. And that's allowed me through many, many decades in my life where I didn't really have much disposable income to still live and eat very well. That was a revelation to me at the time and it's something that I like to share.

Sara: So from that revelation what brought you into food waste advocacy work?

Bob : It's led me down a path, my love of food, a very circuitous path that led to my career in the food world, both as a TV host and a cookbook author, and now having the great opportunity to be an ambassador for organizations like Love Food, Hate Waste and Second Harvest, where I can share both my passion for food and my passion for being respectful of all elements of food throughout the food chain. When I was shooting my very first TV series for the Food Network called Surreal Gourmet, I was living in Toronto and I rented a loft in Parkdale on a small street. And right across the street, literally I could see from my window, across the street to the Parkdale Community Center and every day when I would pull my blinds up I would see the Second Harvest truck pull up and unload whatever ingredients they had that had been donated. And I would see the cooks come out from the community center and they were always so thrilled to be getting these food donations. And that was the first time I became aware of a form of recycling where there are organizations who have excess food or production lines that have produced something with incorrect labeling or whatever and Second Harvest takes all this food and within 48 hours they turn it around and deliver it to organizations. So that was part of the equation. And I went to business school in my past life and so I think when I saw that happening, I realized that what they were doing was taking food for free, that they received for free. They're basically a shipping and trucking and logistics organization, and they would turn it around very quickly and deliver it to people who needed it. And I realized that the cost of doing that was close to nothing. It's just their internal operations, close to nothing relative to the cost of feeding someone a meal from scratch. And over time, I got involved with Second Harvest and because I love the business model, it just seems so smart. Basically they were being like Robin Hood rescuing food that was going to be could have been thrown out, but perfectly good food and delivering it to people who needed it. If you look at the entire food pipeline, it's said that half of the food that's produced is never consumed. Some of that happens at the farm level. Some of it happens in the transportation level, some of it happens in the retail level, and some of it happens at the home level. And one third of the groceries that people bring home are never are never consumed. And that seems so crazy to me because I know that. The difference between using everything that you buy and not using it is really about being a little bit frugal, being a little bit creative and being a little bit pre-emptive. In other words, realizing that you have to use something up before it's gone bad as opposed to waiting until it goes bad and then you have no options. And so it dawned on me that Canadians are a little bit frugal by nature and we're very creative. And so I took it upon myself to help inspire Canadians to come up with different ways to use the ingredients that they have at home, use them all up and really just recalibrate their relationship with the food they buy and understand that they have a responsibility to consume it and not to just throw it out.

Second Harvest was my gateway to the food waste advocacy, followed by my relationship, an ambassadorship with Love food, Hate waste, and the more that has been asked of me, the more interested I've gotten in it and the more I've learned about it.

Sara: Speaking of being asked to do more things…. you were asked to be on this Jury, had you done anything like this before?

Bob: Well, it's not very often that somebody asks you to be a jurist and help divvy up 20 million dollars. So, yes, this is the first time that I've been involved with anything at this level for sure.

Sara: (laughs) Can you describe your experience as a jury member?

Bob: There were 13 jurist's I knew, I think I knew two from the world of Second Harvest and Love food, Hate waste. What was so interesting to me is that we all came from very different walks of life. And so there were people who were very familiar with production, others who were very familiar with technology. I come more from the consumer perspective. And that's what makes the jury so strong, is that everybody sees the application through a different lens. When we were making our decisions, it was it was like a real jury in the sense that we had to convince each other that this was or was not a good idea or merits of being one of the twenty-four finalists. In each case, there was usually one juror who had the most amount of experience in that particular walk of life, and we would defer to them. But then we all had questions and there was often sometimes tugs of war. And it was it was a very interesting process. And I think that if I was an applicant, I would feel very good in knowing that due process was served, and every application was studied and given full consideration. We all took it extremely seriously.

Sara: Did any of the applications surprise you?

Bob : You know, there was a lot of innovation in areas that I hadn't contemplated, so when I think about rescuing food, especially because I do a lot of consumer advocacy to rescue food at home, I don't think about the fact that there are giant grain silos in the prairies and if there's some inefficiency in the way the silo works, you could lose tons and tons and hundreds of tons of grain. My mind never went to problems like that. I'll think about things being plowed under at a farm or again, people wasting food in their own kitchen or something being transported for thousands of miles and going off in the transport truck. But I hadn't thought of some of these ginormous operations where even minimizing the spoilage by one percent can have a have a huge impact and mean an awful lot of grain and so that was that was really Eye-Opening for me. One thing I really took pleasure from as we were looking through these applications is that there were there were several applications from very small companies, not necessarily the companies that could scale up in the biggest way, but local, regional, many from northern Canada and it just really made me appreciate the fact that even the smallest organizations who are tackling food waste can be so inspirational to other organizations and to Canadians in general that I really personally felt that I fought for some of t hese smaller groups. I felt that, you know, how you do the little things is how you do the big things and if we all approach the challenge of minimizing food waste in that same way as the kind of little engine that could, we would get to a solution much faster.

Sara: Can you give us a general idea of the types of applications you saw?

Bob: Sure, well, the applications ran the gamut and there were the applicants from mom and pop organizations to giant industry. The projects themselves ranged from a lot of artificial intelligence to help restaurants and retailers and minimize their food waste. There was a lot of upcycling where people could take, say, by-products of manufacturing soymilk and turn them into other products, as opposed to just letting that go down the drain. Some vertical farming ideas so that we can grow ingredients in warehouses down the road as opposed to, say, importing the same thing from Holland. Lots of ideas for improved transportation that would minimize the waste throughout the transportation pipeline. And then finally, some major agricultural industry concepts for more improved storage. So really, the ideas ran the gamut.

Sara: This is the first time AAFC has run a challenge prize. What do you think of a challenge prize as a way of encouraging innovation?

Bob: As a capitalist, I think that this just the whole notion of this challenge is really, really smart because, you know, corporate Canada and even Small Business Canada responds to the opportunity to make money. And this challenge is shone a spotlight on the opportunities for businesses to make money and also prevent food waste at the same time so it becomes a win win and I think sometimes the way you need to do that is to dangle some prize money in front of people.

Sara: What challenges do the semi-finalists face now?

Bob: Well, the first round was really based on the applicant's hopes, dreams and aspirations. It's what they hoped they could do, the changes that they hoped they could make. And now there are an awful lot of eyes watching them, and as they move on to the second round, they have to start implementing their ideas. I think when anybody is awarded a prize. They feel like they have to rise to the occasion of it, not to mention the fact that they're the prize money is a series of prize money grants, and if you win one, then you're up for the next one. So there's lots of motivation to make this work. And then there's the bragging rights and there's the understanding that a lot of people are looking at you, watching you because they want to see you succeed and they want to make sure that you live up to your proposal. So there's some pressure on the semi-finalists. But at the same time, there's now help that's available to them through the jurists, through the government. And so, I I'm really excited to see what where these twenty-four different projects go in the upcoming months. And it might be really hard to weed out some that just were not appropriate for the competition. But I think now that we have these twenty-four semi-finalists and when they get down and serious, it's going to be a whole new ballgame.

Sara: So Mohamed we just heard from Bob about the challenges the semi-finalists will face. From our perspective what is expected of them next?

Mohamed: So what's next for semi-finalists is now they’re working with implementation partners across Canada. They need to test their solutions in the market and demonstrate that their solutions are effective at reducing food waste. They will be judged on those results by the end of this year, which will be the end of stage two. The semifinals selected are really great innovators. They are eager to work to reduce food waste in Canada. They, and even though the challenges are competition, they are actually working together, collaborating, creating connections among each other. We also know that the challenge helped them in creating partnerships with communities, businesses for not for profits to advance their solution, because there was such a big momentum that was created by the challenge. And the challenge also provided for semi-finalists a grant of one hundred thousand dollars. This is a prize that will help them to grow their solutions in Canada and deliver better results. The grant is not linked to specific expenditures, so it allows innovators to adapt and focus on outcomes only. And we know how much adaptability is necessary for true innovation. So we hope they will move forward and grow their solution in Canada and deliver better results.

Sara: Beyond the money, is Agriculture and Agri-food Canada doing anything else to help those semi- finalists?

Mohamed: So AAFC is preparing also a series of non-financial support activities like, for example, workshops. So one of the first workshops that will be designed is about how better to measure volume of food waste reduction. This is an essential outcome for the challenge and there are other workshops to support them on how to build partnerships, how to perfect their pitch, how to raise money, etc.

Sara: As we talked about at the start, these were semi finalists for the first two categories or streams. There are two more to go, can you tell us about them?

Mohamed: Yes, we're very happy to be launching the last two streams of the challenge. Applications are due by the end of August. These two streams, they target innovators that are working on advancing a new technology that is either in development or kind of the prototyping testing phase. We have two streams. Stream C is for solution that extends the life of food to make sure that it lasts longer. And Stream D is for technology that use that transforms food waste or food by-products or food at risk of being wasted into either new food or value-added products.

Sara: Judging from the first round I am sure we’ll see a lot of fresh ideas. We look forward to talking to the finalists at the end of the challenge. Preventing food waste is a complex issue and it will take action from everybody. We wanted to end todays episode with some advice from Bob for all of us at home. So Bob us as consumers at home need to be part of the solution. What is our role?

Bob: The whole issue of food waste, especially more towards the consumer end, is only something that we've become aware of in the last five years or so. And you think back to a decade or a decade and a half ago when we would walk out of a grocery store carrying a half dozen plastic bags, sometimes even a dozen, if they were doubled up. And we wouldn't stop to think that what's happening to these, like how many billions of bags and we just throwing out every year. And so after the consumers became aware of that problem, then they retrain themselves and got in the habit of bringing reusable bags to the grocery store. And so the same thing is happening in the in the food waste side of things, which is it's only in the last few years that it's reached the public consciousness and until we were aware of the fact that there was a problem. And when I say we I mean both corporate Canada and consumers, until we were aware that there's a problem, there was no way there was people were going to create solutions. And so now we are aware and that's why things are starting to develop. These ideas are developing some inertia and consumers are more aware of their role in their own kitchens in minimizing food waste.

Sara: Any advice for us as we all go home, open our fridges or do the next grocery shop?

Bob : Here, here are the two things that you can do at home that can have the greatest impact. One is be proactive, so plan ahead both with your shopping list and what you're going to buy and what you think you can use. Be prepared to pivot if you if you might have to work late or get invited out for dinner a couple of nights in a row and then all of a sudden you have extra ingredients at home. So always be proactive. Try and try and come up with a solution before your ingredients start to grow mold on them is probably the easiest way to put it and then be resourceful.So being proactive, being creative, and here's my greatest solution for home food waste, and that is imagine that there's a surveillance camera in your kitchen and that every time you go to throw something in the garbage or even the green bin, because that's no longer a solution. Every time you go to throw something out, imagine that your friends, your family and the rest of the world is watching you do that and judging you on whether or not you really could have rescued that item and if we all felt that we had eyes watching us, we would just be a little bit more respectful of each ingredient that we're throwing out. And we would find some solution for it, be it again, put it in the freezer, turn it into a soup, turn it into a stock, turn it into a stir fry, turn it into a frittata. But there's a solution for just about everything that you're going to throw out.

Sara: Thank you to Mohamed and Bob for joining me today. Does your company have an idea for a technology that extends the life of food or transforms food waste? don’t forget to apply on the Impact Canada web site before August 31st 2021. And as always….try something new. Or take something old…like some veggies and make a soup.

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Episode 012 - Food Waste Reduction Challenge: The Next Level

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