Kudos to Doylestown Food Market and the Bucks County Foodshed Alliance, along with the forward-thinking Doylestown PA community, for hosting a showing of the acclaimed food waste documentary Just Eat It last month. I was pleased to be a part of the event as well as a post-film discussion on food waste and its national and global implications with Rolling Harvest Food Rescue founder Cathy Snyder. Linked to the event was a CBS Philadelphia radio spot hosted by Brad Segall in which Doylestown Food Market President John LaSala and I discussed local food system issues and the scope and scale of the food waste problem.
If you haven’t yet seen the film, you should. Soon. Seriously. Just Eat It is a powerful, insightful film about the staggering level of food waste in developed countries and the underlying systemic and cultural causes featuring interviews with authors and activists Tristram Stuart and Jonathan Bloom. Seeking to take a deep (multiple dumpster) dive into the issue of wasted food, filmmakers Grant Baldwin and Jenny Rustemeyer challenge themselves to subsist entirely on excess food that they can recover for a period of six months. The results, including footage of Grant standing in dumpsters full of discarded food, food retail personnel robotically discussing and discarding produce deemed less than perfect and/or items beyond a perceived saleable date, and tons of vegetables and fruits discarded in fields and in processing facilities, are truly compelling. As a result, the film serves as a critical launch pad to incent the behavior change needed (especially at the consumer level) to reduce such wastage.
I began our post-film discussion with a number of questions to the audience: How many of you thought that there was that level of food waste in developed countries like Canada and the U.S.? How many imagined that you could literally stand in dumpsters completely full of discarded food of amazing variety — much of it perfectly edible? How many thought you could save significant amounts of money by subsisting entirely on discarded food? How many thought that you could gain weight by living entirely on discarded food that you collected from dumpsters? And last, how many thought that you could be the coolest house in the neighborhood through your recovery of immense quantities of jumbo-sized chocolate bars? The answer to all of these questions — not many. Incredibly, Grant was often able to stand in dumpsters full of discarded items and “stock up” on desired items. The couple estimated that over the six-month period they recovered $20,000 of food items, and spent only $200 for culled or less-than-perfect items. Feeling compelled to eat everything that they recovered rather than let it go to waste, Grant actually gained ten pounds over the six-month experiment. And with the recovery of several boxes of large organic chocolate bars (as Grant noted, a “high point” of the journey) the couple was able to “wow” Halloween trick-or-treaters like never before.
It’s safe to say the audience was shocked by the film, which is good, but everything about the level of food waste today (particularly in the developed world) should shock us. As co-author Jonathan Bloom and I noted in a recent book chapter, food waste is a conundrum — and we need to move to clarity. The fact that we waste 30-40% of our food nationally, and 50% globally, makes no sense — particularly when coupled with the existence of vast levels of hunger domestically and globally, the significant environmental harm associated with food waste (particularly air and water pollution, as well as soil degradation), and the financial costs of pollution and squandered resources. Nor does the fact that a review of the major studies on food waste over time shows that the annual percentages are increasing. As noted in our session, isn’t it amazing that despite all of the technological advances that continually improve products, processes and our quality of life, we continue to waste excessive amounts of food (and by association all of the resources that went into producing it)?
This can’t last, and it was exciting to note how the film helped our audience “get” it. In a world of increasing population and increasing scarcity, we all have a responsibility to optimize the use of resources — especially food. That starts with properly valuing our food — moving from our current culture of abundance (which leads us to be cavalier about wasting it) to a culture of responsibility (where we use all that we buy, and we buy only what we need). Grant and Jenny helped reveal the myriad benefits that can accrue from such behavior change.
To make the film’s points even more tangible, I presented a slide with four pictures of trash bins full of high-quality food of all types — loaves of freshly baked artisan bread, steaming rotisserie chickens, fresh fruit, and fresh vegetables. The key commonality — all of these examples were local — and sadly, it doesn’t take much effort to find them.
With increased awareness (sure to get a boost from the recent Ad Council campaign) of the food waste problem, concerted educational efforts, and a return to prior-generation values regarding food, augmented by collaboration, partnerships, and creative, innovative start-ups and business developments, we can begin to change the mindset of consumers in developed countries — and thereby drive change through the food supply chain as well.
And for now, a simple and very important takeaway for our audience involves the food that we have on hand. Don’t waste it. Just eat it. That makes a lot of sense.