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Boxing Up a Solution to Food Waste

Peko was launched by students to save groceries from the landfill. They’re helping to cut food bills and climate emissions.

Jen St. Denis 14 May 2024The Tyee

Jen St. Denis is a reporter with The Tyee covering civic issues. Find her on X @JenStDen.

Like many young adults, Sang Le started cooking for herself when she was living on her own in university. She was irked by the amount of food she was wasting, just by forgetting about an item that was languishing in the back of the fridge or hadn’t been stored properly.

“I just got really annoyed at myself, for wasting food and money,” Le recalls.

As a business student, Le started thinking about solutions. Initially, she decided to make an app to send reminders about a food item’s expiry date. But a different business idea started forming when she met another student, Arielle Lok, through a mutual acquaintance. Lok had a background in policy, but both young women were interested in tackling the problem of food waste.

According to an Ontario-based non-profit called Second Harvest, 58 per cent of all food in Canada is wasted or lost each year, and 32 per cent of that lost food is potentially recoverable. That wasted food has a big climate impact, producing 56.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions each year.

A local news story from December 2023 illustrates the problem: North Vancouver resident Sonia Rivest photographed piles and piles of mandarin oranges being dumped at a transfer station, and told the North Shore News she’d been told the fruit had ripened too soon for the Christmas holiday season. She was also told they weren’t good enough quality to sell, but when she took some of the oranges home, “they were delicious,” she told the newspaper. “They’re completely edible.... They look fantastic.”

Lok and Le had read about the two main ways edible food ends up being wasted. They’d learned a lot of produce doesn’t make it to grocery store shelves when fruits and vegetables are considered to be misshapen, not the right size or slightly damaged. They’d also learned about the problem of oversupply, when too much of one food item is grown or distributed and doesn’t match market demand — or, like the mandarin oranges in North Vancouver, doesn’t ripen at the right time to match consumer expectations.

But the two young entrepreneurs wanted to make sure their research resonated in the real world. Starting in 2021, Le and Lok visited several farmers markets in Vancouver and grilled farmers on how and why food gets wasted.

“Farmers said that usually they have around 10 to 20 per cent of their annual supply falling into the category of imperfect food. A lot of times they don’t want to waste the labour cost of harvesting those, so they just let them sit there and become compost,” Le said.

“Which is a fine solution, I guess. But the food has already got to the stage it’s edible.”

They also interviewed food distributors and wholesalers, who told Le and Lok that food waste happens when they buy food from farmers they then can’t sell quickly enough to grocery stores and restaurants.

“It might become perishable and overripen over time during transit, or they just can’t sell in a quick enough velocity,” Le said.

The for-profit model Le and Lok ended up creating, called Peko Produce, involved buying surplus food from both farmers and distributors at a discount, then delivering that food to customers who sign up online to receive a “mystery box” of food. The startup was initially funded by several student entrepreneurship competitions that came with cash prizes, Le said.

A diptych. On the left, Sang Le, a young woman wearing a hairnet, mask and white prep coat in a warehouse space. On the right, three neat columns of cardboard boxes full of produce and other provisions.
Sang Le stands in the warehouse where Peko boxes are assembled. Le says the startup company has served a total of 20,000 customers over three years of operation. Photos by Jackie Dives.

“Our whole value proposition is for this 12-pound produce box, you get at least nine to 10 varieties of fruit and vegetables and everything in there is up to 40 per cent cheaper than grocery store prices,” Le said. (While customers don’t know exactly what they’ll be getting in their boxes, Peko provides a rough guideline and publishes recipes to help buyers make full use of the food.)

“It’s just under three years since we started the company... and we have saved over 300,000 pounds of food from going to waste and saved customers close to $1 million in grocery savings.”

In early 2023, a meal kit company called Fresh Prep acquired Peko. For Fresh Prep, the acquisition was a solution for the food waste that happens when meal kit companies put together their products, with exact portion sizes for specific recipes. Peko’s boxes now contain a combination of food items from Fresh Prep as well as surplus food sourced from wholesalers.

A worker wearing blue latex gloves and a white coat reaches into a plastic bin containing bags of chopped carrots.
A worker assembles a Peko box in Fresh Prep’s East Vancouver warehouse. The business partnership has enabled Peko to expand across BC and Alberta. Photo by Jackie Dives.

For Peko, the acquisition has allowed the startup to expand across B.C. and Alberta and bring its delivery service in-house, leading to better pay and more stable working conditions for the drivers who deliver the boxes. Lok and Le — both still in their early 20s — have now also exited the company to move on to other opportunities, but Le told the Tyee she hopes to see Peko expand to Ontario soon.

Peko’s for-profit model is just one option being tried for reducing food waste.

The Tyee previously profiled a company in northern B.C. that diverts surplus grocery food to farmers to feed to their livestock.

There are also a number of non-profit organizations focused on rescuing food and making sure it gets to people in need. Vancouver Food Runners, for example, works with local businesses to identify and pick up surplus food, using a small army of volunteers who use an app to see where and when food is available. Other organizations are more focused on picking up large pallets of food, while Vancouver Food Runners depends on volunteers using their own vehicles to pick up smaller amounts of food, said Michelle Reining, the executive director of Vancouver Food Runners.

“We launched in March 2020, and that first year we recovered and delivered about 235,000 pounds of food,” Reining told The Tyee.

“Last year, we scaled by 51 per cent and our volunteers delivered 1.26 million pounds of food.”

That rescued food is donated to other non-profits, such as Covenant House and the YWCA, that run meal programs for their clients. As food costs have spiked in recent years, getting donated food represents a real cost savings to non-profits that would otherwise have to buy all the groceries for those programs, Reining said.

Reining doesn’t see a contradiction between a for-profit model like Peko and what non-profit organizations are doing. Vancouver Food Runners used to work with Fresh Prep to pick up surplus food before the company acquired Peko to work as an in-house solution.

“This is actually what we like to see,” Reining told The Tyee. “Once the business gets involved with us, they become more aware of the surplus food, and once they become more aware of their surplus, they can start to actually prevent surplus food within their operations.

“Donations are great. But if we see a business that’s actually going down in the amount of food they’re donating — that’s actually a win for us.”


This article runs in a new section of The Tyee called ‘What Works: The Business of a Healthy Bioregion,’ where you’ll find profiles of people creating the low-carbon, sustainable economy we need from Alaska to California. Find out more about this project and its funders.  [Tyee]

Read more: Food, Environment

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