How Starting a Vegetable Garden Made Me Rethink My Grocery Shopping
By Grace Hunter, Climate Change Garden Exhibit Interpretation Coordinator, June 2021, Royal Botanical Gardens
In February 2021, during a dreary winter and seemingly endless lockdown, I planted tomato seeds. Having recently moved to a new apartment with a large, sunny patio, I finally had the space to create the vegetable container garden of my dreams.
Wanting to be successful in my first gardening attempts, I read books and online articles to arm myself with knowledge. I carefully planted the tiny tomato seeds in egg cartons I had saved. When the seedlings sprouted, I gently sprinkled water on them and ran a fan to provide airflow. And when warm spring weather arrived, I carried the plants in and out of my apartment daily, letting them spend increasing amounts of time on the patio so they could adjust to the harsh outside world.
While I’m happy to report that my efforts have paid off and I am now the proud owner of some very tall, happy tomato plants, I can’t deny that getting to this point has been a lot of work.
There’s a popular meme floating around social media that sums up the tomato growing experience; while the wording varies between posts (and sometimes includes profanity to really drive the point across), the meme can essentially be boiled down to, “growing tomatoes is a great way to spend three months of your life to save $2.00 at the grocery store.”
Funny as it is, this sentiment illustrates the disconnect that can exist between shoppers at a grocery store and the agricultural experts growing our crops. If growing a couple of tomatoes in containers is an unrealistic amount of work for the payoff, think about the hours of unseen labour that go into bringing an affordable tomato to your grocery store shelf. Imagine the waste of time and resources that occurs if someone buys that tomato, brings it home, forgets about it, and throws it out when it spoils.
Canada has a food waste problem. The National Zero Waste Council, an initiative of Metro Vancouver, reports that, “more than a third of food produced and distributed in Canada never gets eaten”. Zooming in a little closer to home, research from the City of Toronto shows that the average single-family household in the city throws out over 200 kg of food waste per year, and over 50% of that food waste is avoidable. Fruits and veggies make up the bulk of wasted food. That’s bad news for our wallets and for our planet; not only do households take a financial hit when the food they pay for goes uneaten, but the waste also then goes on to release methane as it decomposes, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.
The thought of taking any of the fruits from my patio tomato plants and throwing them in the trash is a no-go for me; I’ve put too much time and effort into seeing them grow. Perhaps reframing our view of the fruits and veggies at our store, understanding the energy and care that goes into growing, picking, transporting, and selling safe and nutritious produce, will help us prioritize not letting the food we buy go to waste. Whether home-grown or bought from a store, let’s try to make every delicious tomato count.
Here are some tips to reduce food waste at home:
- Only buy what you need: Like many other Canadians, I make routine trips to Costco and buy food in bulk to save time and money. But as a two-person household, I recognize that some produce is best bought fresh. For example, bulk packages of items like mushrooms spoil faster than we can eat in my home; it is far more cost-effective to buy produce that is prone to spoiling in smaller amounts from a local grocery store or farmer’s market.
- Embrace the freezer: The freezer is your ally in the fight against food waste. Frozen fruits and veggies are just as nutritious as fresh and can be a reliable way to get plants into your diet year-round.
- Start a veggie garden: Nothing is more illuminating to the value of produce than growing it yourself. Plus starting a veggie garden does not have to be expensive. Royal Botanical Gardens has launched a seed sharing library where you can ‘borrow’ packages of veggie seeds, and then return some of the seeds your new plants produce at the end of the season. A bonus to this program is you get to try out fun and unusual cultivars. RBG also has a treasure trove of gardening how-to videos available for you to check out on Youtube.
The High Cost of Food Waste. Online. National Zero Waste Council. http://www.nzwc.ca/focus-areas/food/issue/Pages/default.aspx
Food Waste. Online. City of Toronto. https://www.toronto.ca/services-payments/recycling-organics-garbage/long-term-waste-strategy/waste-reduction/food-waste/#:~:text=According%20to%20the%20National%20Zero,waste%20has%20substantial%20environmental%20impacts.