If you dropped a bag of groceries, you’d stop to pick it up – correct? And you wouldn’t go on to throw those groceries out a few days later – would you?
“Imagine walking out of a grocery store with four bags of groceries, dropping one in the parking lot, and just not bothering to pick it up. That’s essentially what we’re doing.” – Dana Gunders, Food & Agriculture Scientist, Natural Resources Defense Council (US)
The above quote and image appear in Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story, a documentary about the shocking amount of perfectly good food that goes to waste. It seems crazy, doesn’t it? The thought of throwing out perfectly good food? But that’s essentially what we’re doing – although this particular documentary is Canadian, extreme food wastage appears throughout the developed world.
Global Ideas Labs, April 2016: food for thought
Global Ideas Labs take a deep dive into a complex global health issue and generate discussion and productive debate. Monday this week saw first Labs event of the year take place. We partnered with the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival to bring you Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story (2014).
Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story
The film focuses on filmmakers Jen Rustemeyer and Grant Baldwin, who undertake a six-month challenge to survive only on discarded food. They can pay for food if they need to, but it must be produce that would otherwise be thrown out.
This challenge allows them to expose exactly how much and what type of food is being wasted, and why.
Jen Rustemeyer and Grant Baldwin in their bid to eat only “wasted food” for six months.
What foods are going to waste?
If anyone has any doubts about the sheer quantity (and quality) of food that’s wasted, this film will quash them. There are countless scenes and images that elicited audible gasps and laughs of disbelief from the audience – to name just a few:
- a super-sized dumpster filled to the brim with hummus, three weeks from its expiry date
- fields full of discarded celery stalks – perfectly fine to eat, but not part of the “celery heart” supermarkets prefer to stock
- mountains of bread, abandoned because the shelves can be restocked with fresher loaves
- “unsellable” vacuum-packed chickens
- another dumpster filled with chicken and bacon bits, leftover from a pizza commercial.
I found the latter scenes particularly difficult to swallow. As someone who choses not to eat animals for ethical and environmental reasons, I’m conscious of the fact that breeding animals for food requires (a) a huge amount of precious resources and (b) an animal’s life to be forcibly taken. To then see so many of those animals’ bodies discarded – well, it’s mind-boggling.
Meat, far from its expiry date, found in a dumpster.
Why does this much food waste occur?
Throughout the challenge, Jen and Grant’s pantry was often bursting with food – to the extent they regularly invited friends to grocery shop for free at their house. Eggs, dairy, meat, packaged risottos, chocolate, vegetables – throughout the project they rescued $20,000 (CAD) worth of food that would have otherwise gone to waste.
But from where is this waste generated? Why do individuals, families and businesses throw away incomprehensible amounts of food? Just Eat It gives several explanations. For one, supermarkets have set an unnecessarily high standard for their products. During the project Jen and Grant visited a peach farmer in California who revealed between 30 and 70 percent of his peaches went to waste – purely because of aesthetics.
There’s also confusion and fear amongst consumers around best-before dates. Many people view these numbers and letters as a warning: “If you eat this product after the date it’s stamped with, you will probably get sick and/or die”. In reality, many of these dates are simply guidelines as to when the food is at peak freshness – in other words, we’re often talking about pastry crispiness, not food poisoning.
Another interesting cause of food waste is social pressure. People throughout the film remarked on how embarrassing it would be to throw a dinner party and not have *too much* food. This spoke to me for sure – without fail, every time I cook for a group of friends, I get home from the store and panic that there won’t be enough to eat. We live in a society where excess and abundance are the norm – an attitude we need to change if we want to minimise and eliminate food waste.
Grant atop an 18-foot dumpster, filled to the brim with hummus.
What about donating food?
Just Eat It highlights some of the waste-minimisation practices Jen and Grant came across during filming. In the film, Jen volunteers one afternoon a week at Quest Food Exchange, a “secondary grocery store” where people on lower incomes can apply to shop for less “pretty” food, or food that has reached the best-before date, but is safe and enjoyable to consume.
The practice of “gleaning” is also popular – in the film, North Carolina-based journalist and author Jonathan Bloom takes us to a field of sweet potatoes left over from harvest. Here, volunteers, growers, and distributors work to salvage produce for those in need.
While these practices are fantastic, they are not a catchall solution. So much food still makes its way to landfills. These huge piles of waste mean even organic material is unable to compost properly. When food scraps and green waste are compacted down and covered, there’s no oxygen to allow it to compost. Instead, it breaks down in an anaerobic process, releasing methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
Gleaning is becoming increasingly popular, but it’s still a small-scale solution.
What is Australia’s attitude towards food waste?
Food wastage in Australia is similarly dire when compared with North America. Households discard up to 20 percent of the food they purchase. As a country, we throw away $8 billion worth of edible food every year. And an estimated 20–40 percent of fruit and vegetables are rejected before they reach stores – simply because they don’t meet cosmetic standards.
The demographics most likely to waste food in Australia are young consumers aged 18-24 years old (particularly in share-accommodation); households with a combined income of more than $100,000 per year; and families with children.
Post-film discussion was led by Sophie Lamond and centred on food waste in Australia. Sophie is co-founder of the Fair Food Challenge, which uses the power of students and universities to create a fair, healthy and accessible food system. She’s also completing her Masters with a focus on corporate social responsibility in food corporations.
Monday’s audience was clearly moved by Just Eat It. Many were inspired by the “eat first bin” that Jen and Grant had in their fridge – an ice cream container containing the half-onions and overripe mangoes needing to be used in tomorrow’s lunches or a smoothie. Still more agreed it is of utmost importance that we choose where we shop wisely. There was a lot of discussion around the experience of food being instrumental in creating change. If we research the businesses we buy from, and shop and prepare food with friends and family, we’ll care a whole lot more about it. As Sophie put it: “We need to relearn to love food and community”.
In spite of the fact that the film deals with a pretty depressing topic, Jen and Grant are inspiring. The problem is overwhelming, but to see such a “normal” pair take on a major sustainability issue makes the problem seem comprehensible and – with the right personal and political changes – solvable. It will certainly be a matter of incremental change, but I’d recommend that anyone watch the documentary and consider the message.
Anyway, when I went home afterwards and made dinner, I put all my vegetable scraps in a container in the freezer. I’m going to start making veggie stocks.
Tom Wren of Global Ideas and Sophie led the post-screening discussion at Longplay in Fitzroy North.
Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story trailer