Each year, the Canadian food industry throws away more than 11 million metric tonnes of edible food. A number of projects have sprung up across the country to distribute some of that food to food banks. The SEED wanted to go a step further to complement existing efforts in the community. They recognized that there is a secondary market for blemished food that can be bought at discounted prices and/or donated outright. At the same time, they saw an opportunity to address one of the main roots of food insecurity—unemployment—and increase access to nutritious foods.
A project of the Guelph Community Health Centre, The SEED is an award-winning project that runs several programs and social enterprises. These include community food markets, cooking workshops, food distribution to schools and food pantries, and more. In 2018 they used their knowledge of the produce industry to begin designing what would become the Upcycle Kitchen. This social enterprise rescues produce that would otherwise be discarded by distributors and transforms it into jams, sauces, soups, dips and other products.
In the very early stages of exploring potential Upcycle Kitchen products, The SEED teamed up with two University of Guelph students through the university’s entrepreneurship program.
The students visited a local wholesale distributor who showed them boxes of tomatoes that would go unsold because they were slightly damaged or deemed too “ugly.” After further research and conversations with potential customers at the Guelph Farmer’s Market and a community grocery store, they decided to create a tomato sauce as their first prototype.
Upcycle Kitchen subsequently identified opportunities for ketchup and for bread made from spent grain from a local brewery. Those products could be sold at sliding scale rates at The SEED’s weekly food markets, making them affordable to all community members. Ultimately, Upcycle Kitchen aims to see their products on retail shelves and delivered to student nutrition programs in the City and County.
Their products are produced by graduates from The SEED’s Good Food Work Experience program. Four times a year, The SEED trains up to 10 unemployed youth who aren’t in school. Through sessions at each of the organization’s social enterprises, youth gain a wide view of what food-based career opportunities are available. The three-week program includes kitchen-based training sessions that cover everything from knife skills to canning and more. Some of those youth are then hired to work at Upcycle Kitchen.
It doesn’t stop there. The ambitious social enterprise also piloted an “Upcycle Kitchen Café,” providing meals made from upcycled ingredients to the Guelph Community Health Centre staff and clients.
Although Upcycle Kitchen is currently on hold due to COVID-19, this model ultimately promises generate profits from sales that will reduce reliance on outside funding.
Tools, templates and technology used
The innovative model leverages foodrescue.ca, a platform developed by Toronto’s Second Harvest that connects businesses that have food surpluses to agencies that can put them to good use.
Challenges and lessons learned
Predictability of supply: Because Upcycle Kitchen relies on donated food, ensuring a reliable supply of ingredients can be challenging. One week, a wholesaler may contribute an entire skid of tomatoes; the next, there might be nothing coming in. To deal with that unpredictability, Upcycle Kitchen: (a) has a versatile list of vetted recipes that use different fresh ingredients; and, (b) processes what they can when it comes in, freezes it and then finishes a recipe once the missing ingredients arrive. If they receive more food donations than they can handle, excess produce is channelled to food banks through The SEED’s fresh food distribution programs.
Perceptions of “rescued” food: “When you say the word ‘food waste,’ it conjures up these images of your compost bin at home,” says Tom Armitage, Social Enterprise Coordinator at The SEED. “But that’s really not the case at all. What we’re using are high-quality, fresh ingredients that have mild cosmetic imperfections.”
Upcycling turns that food into value-added products like sauces and soup where those imperfections aren’t relevant, but Upcycle Kitchen still has to overcome consumer misconceptions that “rescued” food is second-rate. One way to do that, Armitage suggests, is posting photos of incoming produce to showcase the quality of the ingredients.