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If entrepreneurs want to combat food insecurity, they need to get their hands dirty

Date November 9, 2017 Author Lucy Robinson Categories News

At 2 p.m. on November 4, it’s pencils down. After two days of research, planning, and prototype testing, the ShareON Design Jam has reached the final pitching stage.

Design students, tech entrepreneurs, engineers, and assorted creative types, clustered in groups of four or five, queue up to present their ideas to combat food waste and food insecurity in Ontario. Competing for a top prize of $6,000, six months of free co-working space, and mentorship through PwC Canada, the presenters at Ryerson University’s Student Learning Centre start rehearsing. The air fills with whispered jargon:

  • “real-time market”
  • “gamify the app”
  • “gamify the service”
  • “leveraging the existing sharing economy”
  • “Chief Storytelling Officer”
  • “circular economy”
  • “that’s a phase-three idea”

The judges — School for Social Entrepreneurs team leader Marjorie Brans, IBM Canada innovation manager Dan Sinai, assistant deputy minister of the Poverty Reduction Strategy Office Karen Glass, PwC head of innovation Arié Fisher, and restaurateur Sang Kim — smile and nod encouragement, reminding the young presenters not to be nervous. Each group makes a five-minute pitch, after which there’s a two-minute question period.



Most of the presentations begin with a statement about the scourge of food waste (about $31 billion worth of food is wasted each year in Canada). Nearly half focus on some version of meal sharing — apps that facilitate the exchange of prepared meals, co-shopping to take group advantage of sale prices, digital catalogues of fridges and pantries that enable a user to locate a neighbour who has two eggs to trade for a cup of sugar. One group boldly proposes to digitally pair millennial condo dwellers with seniors to cook dinner together.

Although the groups were instructed to keep their ideas within the bounds of existing regulatory frameworks, none of the presenters mentions public health codes or liability concerns. Only one team makes a nod toward government policy, proposing a tax rebate for users.

Kim, who owns a handful of trendy restaurants in downtown Toronto, is the most persistent inquisitor of the five judges. He asks each of the 16 groups some version of, “Have you ever met a poor person?” Over the course of two hours, Kim, who grew up poor and stole food to survive, hammers the presenters with challenging questions and observations:

  • How do you offset the stigma of creating a welfare state within the apartment building?
  • If you’re connecting people from multicultural backgrounds, how do you deal with the language issues?
  • It seems like the image of your idea is more important than the action.
  • Have you ever experienced food insecurity?
  • Do you know the percentages of grandmothers that live by themselves?
  • Is your theoretical user being rewarded for sharing? Or being rewarded for continually wasting?

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