What happens when two filmmakers challenge themselves to survive for six months only on discarded food? You get Just Eat It, a new documentary that explores the food waste issue from the farm all the way to a Vancouver fridge.
Debuting at festivals in late April, the film follows Jen Rustemeyer and Grant Baldwin’s food waste experiment and features interviews with experts like authors Tristram Stuart and Jonathan Bloom, and Dana Gunders, project scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. What they find is both shocking and hopeful.
This is Vancouver-based couple’s second foray into waste-based projects. For their first film, The Clean Bin Project, they competed with each other to see who could produce the least amount of garbage. We caught up with the filmmakers to learn more about Just Eat It. But first, check out the trailer:
Sustainable America: You had already tackled waste in your first film. What motivated you to look deeper into food waste?
Jenny Rustemeyer: We were doing some school presentations, and we ended up doing a waste audit at one school where you dump out a garbage can and look at all the different categories of recycling and things that shouldn’t have been in the garbage. We saw things like granola bars and pudding cups, and that was really the first time we realized that edible food was going in the garbage. That sparked the initial thought that we should look into food waste a little bit more.
Grant Baldwin: What we were trying to do at that school is say, “Let’s find out what can be composted.” But what we found is that this food hadn’t even got to the stage of being post-consumer. It was still ready to eat, still packaged. We started researching, and waste seemed to be the next food topic. I feel like we’ve had this conversation about organic food for so long, but if the food’s not even eaten, then what’s the point of growing it sustainably?
SA: Why did you challenge yourselves to live off discarded food?
Jen: This was totally Grant’s idea. We like to show the regular person’s side of the story. We thought if there’s 40% of food being wasted, we should be able to find some of it and eat it. There’s definitely a stigma around that. We both have day jobs, and I was pretty worried that my boss was going to find out that I was dumpster diving. But if we hadn’t set the rule that we had to eat exclusively rescued food, then I don’t think we would have found as much waste out there.
SA: How did you find the food?
Grant: It started pretty bad. We didn’t really know where to look. We went cold turkey; just quit grocery shopping, basically. We found most places lock up their waste. We would also try to purchase the food where we could from the grocery store that had already pulled it off the shelf, but that only worked a couple times during the whole project. Most places wouldn’t sell it to us.
At farmer’s markets, we were successful in purchasing the ugly stuff left over that people wouldn’t buy for cosmetic reasons. We’d find the majority of the food at wholesalers. Some grocery stores had bins that were open. A couple stores actually had a discount shelf of past-date food, and we were able to buy that.
Jen: Or we’d shop off the cull cart in the produce section. They go through the produce section and pick out the ones that are damaged and put them on the cart to take them into the back. I would just follow that guy around and take what he was taking right off the cart.
SA: So you were still spending some money on food? You were just trying to intercept the food that wasn’t going to be sold?
Grant: There’s a term called freegan that really bothers us because “free” is in the word, meaning you’re trying to live for free. And that really wasn’t the point of this project. We didn’t want to be associated with that, and also we felt like the food is still good, that’s the point. Why can’t we buy it? Though we tried to buy the food, we were pretty much shut down most of the time so we only spent $200 on groceries in 6 months, and we brought home $20,000 worth.
SA: What were some of the more egregious examples of food waste that you found?
Jen: The further we looked up the supply stream, the further the quantities. We started looking at wholesalers, and the scale of food waste there is pretty shocking. Just because it’s all in one spot. For example, one day we found $13,000 worth of organic chocolate bars. Hundreds and hundreds of chocolate bars. Just boxes and boxes. We took as many as we could to save them. The reason that we think they were thrown out is that here in Canada you have to have everything labeled in French and English, and there was no French writing on these packages. They weren’t past date or anything like that. So we ate chocolate daily for a year.
Grant: The next day we found pallets of pickled herring. Our diet wasn’t that great in terms of variety. Sometimes things didn’t really go well together, like chocolate bars and pickled herring, but this is the kind of stuff that’s getting thrown out. We are talking about something that’s been preserved in a jar, and it’s thrown out, or canned foods or cans of soda. Stuff like this that you would expect to find in an earthquake shelter, for example. The stuff you would store. So there’s definitely a disconnect happening between surplus or stuff near date and places that want the food. We know of many places in our town that would’ve taken it, but there’s just no one there to pick it up or make that connection.
SA: Did you ever go hungry?
Grant: No, I gained about 10 pounds. The food was more packaged and processed, so there was a lot of eating foods like that.
Jen: We had friends coming over grocery shopping at our house.
SA: What were some of the more surprising or shocking things you learned about food waste?
Grant: For me, the biggest shock was the whole time I just wanted to point the finger at industry and say look at how bad you guys are, but really a lot of it is consumer-driven — whether it’s at the grocery store where we decide not to buy stuff because it doesn’t look right, or when we actually purchase the food and we don’t eat it in our house. So we do spend a fair amount of the film looking at what we’re doing in our homes because half of the food wasted is wasted by us in our houses and at restaurants. I didn’t realize it was such a high part of it. So we turned the camera on ourselves in that sense and said, OK, this is the easiest fix, what can we do in our house?
SA: What areas do you think have the biggest potential to make an impact on this problem?
Jen: First of all, we always try to remember that businesses and corporations and farmers, they still are individuals, they are people. So if someone gets engaged in their own home about food waste, they might take that to their work as well. I think one of the key areas that could help a lot is around date labeling. People are throwing out food because it’s close to the date or it’s just past the date, and they’re not sure what the date really means. We did a lot of research around that and realized that the dates are really there for peak freshness and not for safety. It’s generally completely fine to eat things past the date, and we need to use our senses a little bit more.
SA: What is your No. 1 tip for reducing food waste at home?
Grant: I made an “eat me first” bin in the fridge. Then I put stuff in there like a half an onion or tomato or a bit of celery. Anything that is going to go bad soon, I put in that bin, and then when I open the fridge I look at it and think, Oh, what can I make out of these items that are on their way out? I think we save quite a bit of food that way. We’re not perfect. We still have some food waste for sure. We do compost anything that we don’t get to, but I think that bin has saved a lot. And it’s a really simple way to curb the fridge waste.
SA: What do you want viewers to come away with from this film?
Grant: Just revalue food and have fun with what’s in your house. When we started, we realized how much food we still had in our pantry and freezer, and it became kind of fun just making meals off of what we already had. After watching this film, I hope that people, when they eat out, will watch that portion or bring the leftovers home and get past the stigma of that.
Jen: I hope that they come away entertained too. It’s a documentary about a serious issue, but it’s actually a pretty fun documentary. The portions with grant and myself are definitely comic relief to the seriousness of the issue.
Just Eat It will be premiering at the Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto on April 27, and Jen and Grant plan to make the film available for community screenings in the fall. Visit foodwastemovie.com for more information.
Sustainable America Blog Editor