Did you know that around 40% of the food in the U.S. goes uneaten? Americans waste the equivalent of $165 billion in food every single year. In "Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story," filmmakers Grant Baldwin and Jen Rustemeyer pledge to live off of discarded food for six months, and through their journey explore issues of food waste across the food chain — from the farm, through retail, and into a consumer's refrigerator at home. What they found is shocking.
We recently spoke with Baldwin about the film, which will air Wednesday night on MSNBC.
What inspired you to look at the issue of food waste?
Well, it actually came about as a result our previous film, "The Clean Bin Project." We were asked to do a waste audit with a bunch of school kids -- a class. We were going through the trash with them to figure out what they could recycle, and we were just finding tons of uneaten food: unpeeled bananas, pudding cups that were still sealed. You know, stuff that could go back on a store shelf, basically.
And we just stopped and a light went on; we realized this is really an issue we need to look into. And that week we read a food waste report, where 40% of food is being wasted. We just knew this was something we had to dive into.
So you decided to do a six-month challenge, surviving on discarded food. How did you decide on the scope and parameters?
We could have gone on forever with the project, but we just basically said let’s just do six months -- it’s a long enough period where we could really kind of get an opportunity to find the food, and capture footage of wasted food. That was the ultimate goal, you know. By putting ourselves in this challenge, we then enabled ourselves to actually find this food and photograph it. No one can imagine what it looks like.
Jen [Rustemeyer] wasn’t really into doing it at all in the beginning. She was nervous. I was pretty gung-ho. The first month was pretty hard. We went cold turkey -- we quit grocery shopping, and then didn’t even know where to find discarded food because the grocery bins had been locked up. So [at first] we ended up getting food from my brother who was throwing stuff out, and we had food in our own pantry and freezer and it kept us going for the first week or so.
And then we started really finding where the food was being thrown out, that we could actually get to. And then at that stage everything changed to where we had too much food.
It's almost funny watching the film, because while you're really struggling at first, toward the end of the film you have so much food you’re inviting friends over to essentially "shop" from your cabinets and refrigerator.
That was unexpected. We felt we’d get some shots of dumpster diving, but we never thought we’d get a dumpster full of hummus. It was shocking imagery.
And I was kind of excited when I found it because, A: We found some food, and B: I found the imagery we needed to show it. It’s also the shock that this is perfectly good food and in a couple of hours it’s being trucked off to a landfill. You know, there were a lot of mixed emotions going on.
What's both fascinating and frustrating is the way the film explores how food waste touches upon so many other issues — water waste (very critical now), energy and even climate change. What are the most important points you want to leave with viewers?
I think when people leave I want them to value food differently. When you waste something, you’re not just wasting that food item -- that apple, or that tomato -- you’re wasting everything that went into growing it: the harvest, energy, the transport, all of that’s thrown away at the same time. All the fertilizer. All the water.
And just getting an idea of the actual value — you know, the true value — of that food we’re tossing. We just want that to hit home with people, just to revalue food again.
We’ve been talking about organic food, and we’ve been talking about GMOs and local food, but we’re still throwing 40% of it away. So this is really the first conversation we want to have. The biggest conversation we need to have right now is about food waste.
And I think it’s starting to tip that way, and it's being picked up a lot more by the media. So I think the conversation is shifting.
You explore culled food -- foods pulled from the shelves for a variety of reasons -- in the grocery stores, how it is often trashed, and how it was difficult for you at times to purchase items that had been culled. Did this surprise you?
Not really. Most people, it’s just not on their radar to do anything with the food. A lot of grocery stores do donate; food banks have a relationship with grocery stores. But even places that donate still have excess food and still throw it away.
We found tons of food discarded at one wholesaler. We found out later that they do donate during the week, but not on the weekend. And on the weekends they chucked out tons of food.
I don’t think the grocery stores are being malicious, but I think at some point there will be enough social pressure that they'll have to market their food in such a way that they say, “You know what, we donate this percentage of our food.”
People will put pressure on them with what they expect from their store. Just as they expect to see local food, and they expect to see fair trade food.
What was the hardest part of the 6-month challenge? The easiest?
For Jen, I know it was there was kind of a stigma with friends and family about what we were doing and what they thought food waste was, you know, being food scraps -- as if someone would scrape stuff off their plate. We got that a lot when we told people what we were doing, and it wasn’t until people saw what we doing that it sort of changed their minds.
But during the project, it was really sort of awkward -- what we were up to and where our food came from.
And then I guess the easiest thing was once we found where places threw out food, it was easy to find it.
Did you ever go hungry?
No, but it was not so much going hungry. You’d have too much of one item and then the complimentary item wouldn’t come in for two weeks. So you might have a couple cases of milk, but you don’t find cereal for two weeks. So it was just kind of dealing with one item.
I actually gained weight. I gained 10 pounds. Hunger wasn’t an issue in the project.
What tips would you have for consumers wanting to reduce food waste in the home?
I think when you’re grocery shopping you can buy imperfect [items], or buy the stuff no one else is going to buy. You can start that right now.
When you’re at home, manage your refrigerator. We don’t need to fill our refrigerators front to back. Especially if you’re going away on vacation this summer, there’s no reason to do a full grocery shop. I think that’s a big change in our lives right now. When we look in our fridge now before we leave to go somewhere right now, it’s empty. And that’s a big change.
When you’re out at a restaurant, maybe just say, “I don’t need full portions.” If you don’t need fries because you’re on an Atkins diet, then don’t have them put it on the plate.
Are you also passionate about food issues? Follow me @noellecarter