Halfway through Hot Docs 2014, I had the great pleasure to sit down with filmmakers Grant Baldwin and Jenny Rustemeyer to discuss their call to arms Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story. Number fourteen of the top twenty audience favourites this year, and winner of the Emerging Canadian Filmmaker Award, it’s an eye-opening demonstration of just how much we’re blindly discarding.
I met them at the Park Hyatt, and we quickly ventured up a small flight of stairs adjacent to the lobby where a quiet, secluded room with a fireplace sat waiting for us. “We’re really tired,” Grant needlessly apologizes. It’s no wonder: asides from the exhaustion of the festival circuit, Grant and Jenn have a newborn baby boy in tow.
With a young child to care for, the question of food waste immediately springs to mind. This is of little concern, as Jenn deftly adds, “people always say there’s so much more waste when you have children. I think it depends on the way that you raise them. In our family, we used to serve food family style so that the food was in the middle of the table. You would take what you want, and then you had to eat everything on your plate.”
“[I]t’s interesting now, having a child,” Jenn continues, “because people [ask] ‘what about food waste? Do you think it’s safe?’ Absolutely. I would feed the food waste that we found to our son. It’s perfectly safe. [I]t’s not garbage food; it’s just surplus.”
“It hasn’t even reached the […] store, a lot of it,” Grant continues. They go on to discuss the unfortunate prejudices we as a society now have towards the appearance of certain foods. As demonstrated in the film, through a shocking scene involving peaches, if produce doesn’t meet specific aesthetic standards, it’s put in a different bin, and disposed of. The farmers don’t earn money off of this “irregular” crop, and the perfectly edible, unconventional looking fruit is never consumed.
“[I]t’s interesting that people often confuse the look of [fruits and] vegetables with safety,” Grant continues. “Someone said to me when I showed them the peach scene […] ‘well that’s just the company trying to make sure that we have safe food.’ But that’s not even the point. The point is that the food is the same that’s going [to grocery stores], it just looks different.”
A large part of the problem is confusion on the part of the general public, where nearly half of all food waste occurs: in our own home. It’s easy to blame the large corporations, who are responsible for a great deal of food waste. But the fact remains that we waste more than we’d like to admit, or are aware of.
The notion of date labels – commonly misunderstood to be expiration dates – is that they denote when food goes bad. This is a fallacy. Date labels – “best if used by”, “best before”, “sell by”, and “packing codes”, for example – don’t denote when the food will go bad. They simply suggest a range of time whereby the food will be at its freshest and best tasting. It has little to nothing to do with safety, in spite of what the public has come to believe.
As a result of this confusion, we’re more prone to disposing of food because of a suggestive date. We no longer know how to listen to our senses to determine the quality of what we’re eating. Jenn offers a reason for this, saying, “we’re just more dissociated from where our food comes from than ever before. Especially people that live in urban centers,” she continues. “I met someone that said she’d never smelled sour milk. I was saying how milk is a good example; you know if it’s gone off [because of the smell] and you just don’t drink it. And she said she’d never smelled sour milk. [S]he’s an adult. So we’re just so dissociated with what food is like.”
“I just think they need to be changed,” Grant adds regarding date labels. “I shouldn’t be able to pick up a product like crackers that have an expiration date on them, because, legally, they don’t even have to put an expiration date on them. Anything over 90 days doesn’t require a date label. But that’s confusing so many people. So if that date is removed, and the other stuff like dairy and shorter shelf life foods have encoded dates, then we’d be saving tons of food. There’s policy, us as people making decisions within our homes, and what we’re doing in our fridges. Everything is all a food waste conversation that’s just not happening.”
Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story is that attempt to spark dialogue, to start the conversation that needs desperately to be had. One of the most shocking images in the entire film is footage taken of a small pool-sized bin full of hummus. President’s Choice® hummus, perfectly sealed, perhaps never even shelved. In some instances, the date labels on the product suggest they would have been good for at least another three weeks.
“That hits home because it’s the same item over and over,” Grant adds. “[T]here’s actually another shot in there where we’re standing in a larger dumpster, Jenn’s rooting around in it, and there’s actually way more food in that picture. But because it’s all different things it doesn’t resonate as much.”
“[T]hat’s why it doesn’t resonate when we’re at restaurants and there’s portions of food left on plates,” Grant continues. “It’s not adding up. But imagine putting that all onto one pile. [I]t’s hiding in our fridges and on our plates. [Y]ou need something to make you ask ‘what’s going on?’”
“[Y]ou can’t visualize it at all unless you can really see it,” Jenn adds.
“I was thinking of an analogy today,” Grant said. “Winners® is a clothing store based on surplus and things that are cosmetically incorrect. So there’s a market for clothing that’s like that. Let’s have a market for food that’s like that.”
While the food equivalent to Winners® is a great idea, the notion of complacency comes to mind. We may see films like Just Eat It and feel a sudden rush to action. Proactive to begin with, it seems only natural to become complacent. Especially with the overwhelming presence of our simple, everyday conveniences, it seems all too easy to let things slide.
“I think it definitely goes unnoticed,” Jenn says, in response to my concerns. “Especially in developed countries where we have so much, and the portion of our income that we spend on food is so small. Most people are willing to pay a little more so that they have variety so they can afford to waste. For individuals, you can talk about cost, but ultimately it comes down to morality. It’s not responsible to be wasting food.”
“What’s the first lesson you learn as a kid?” Grant chimes in. “Finish your plate. [W]hen we were talking to Tristram Stuart in his interview [for the film], he said ‘back when we were kids there probably wasn’t really a connection between wasting the food on our plate, and poor people.’ But now, there’s a lot of food on a global market.”
“If we’re squandering grain, for example,” Grant continues, “for our bread – which is the highest wasted food product – we’re actually removing that from the food market, making the commodity go up in price. So if you’re a developing country, it’s more expensive to buy grain. So you really are taking food out of mouths and throwing it in dumpsters.”
So what can we do? How do we affect change?
“[I]t’s all about convenience,” Grant suggests, “and everything’s connected in that sense. [T]he more we make things easier, the harder it is to get people to go without and work harder for something. But I think food waste is one of the easiest things to [work on]. If you try to tell someone to cut their emissions down, people start freaking out. But food waste, all you’re really asking someone to do is to save money, and eat the food that you’re buying.”
“[Y]ou don’t have to change your diet,” Jenn continues, “or eat special foods, or change your lifestyle at all, really. All you have to do is buy a little less and make sure you eat everything you buy. It’s so simple.”
“But it’s still a struggle,” Grant adds, suggesting that level of conscious consumption can be tricky to keep up. “[S]ince we finished we still have some food waste in our house, but we’re [more] aware of it now.”
“Even if it starts off being really impactful,” Jenn says, “and you’re going to have zero food waste in your house, and even if you go down from that initial excitement, I think you’ll always have some awareness. [I]f everyone could improve a little, we’ll be saving a lot.”
The most important thing is to start a conversation. We need an educational dialogue to flow through the mainstream so that more consumers can be made aware of just how much needless waste they’re producing. “There’s been three food waste documentaries and I think there should be three hundred,” Grant said. “Because people are going to see it in different ways and share things and get the conversation going. I think the conversations are starting, and I think it can resonate.”