Daphne Bramham: Dumpster divers provide food for thought (with video)

 

Our society is wasting food on a super-sized scale, suggests Vancouver documentary

 
 
 
 
In a scene from Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story, Grant Baldwin takes a look at an entire dumpster filled with packages of hummus that are still nearly a month away from their best before date.
 
 

In a scene from Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story, Grant Baldwin takes a look at an entire dumpster filled with packages of hummus that are still nearly a month away from their best before date.

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If there’s a sudden jump in the number of dumpster divers in the next few months, blame Vancouver documentary makers Grant Baldwin and Jenny Rustemeyer.

For six months, they lived off discarded food to highlight the fact that nearly half of all food produced in North America ends up in landfills or compost.

They searched dumpsters behind grocery stores, processing plants and wholesalers. They bought food culled from grocery shelves at reduced prices because the fruits and vegetables had imperfections or because the processed foods were at or near their best-before dates.

The result of the couple’s experiment is Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story, a funny, poignant, shocking documentary that makes you ashamed to live in a society where there’s paradoxically so much waste and still so many hungry people.

What the filmmakers found is waste on a massive scale in a food system that’s complex and complicated with so many different rules and regulations that it’s easy for some to be misunderstood by everyone, from sellers to buyers.

Few along the food chain, for example, realize that those date stamps on food doesn’t mean that the produce is bad, dangerous or inedible. It simply means that beyond that date the milk, cereal or whatever is not guaranteed to be at its peak.

Baldwin and Rustemeyer spent $200 during those six months on food that was being culled from shelves because of slight blemishes or its best before date — that misleading number that makes consumers shun its purchase.

Rustemeyer estimates they salvaged $20,000 worth of food from dumpsters behind grocery stores, food warehouses and processors.

But they only took what they needed; the amount of wasted food they found was much, much higher.

They found cartons of discarded organic chocolate bars that were a year away from their sell-by date, cases of eggs, cartons of packages of organic chili, huge sacks of flour, milk, yogurt and organic juices.

Among the startling images is Baldwin standing in a swimming pool-sized bin filled with sealed plastic packs of hummus that still had nearly a month before their best before date.

Those images only hint at the grossness of the problem.

Researchers have found that half of the food that people buy gets thrown out. Half of what’s grown, processed and put on grocery shelves is thrown out. In Canada alone, the value of all that wasted food is estimated at $27 billion.

And it’s not just the wasted food; think of the water and energy resources that go into growing, harvesting and processing it.

Throw out a single hamburger and what’s lost in wasted water from the growing and processing of that meat is the equivalent to running a shower for 90 minutes.

There are freetarians or freegans committed to eating only what they find. But Rustemeyer and Baldwin are very clear: they’re not promoting it as a lifestyle.

Their goal is to provoke a discussion.

“Everybody is wasting food. Nobody wants to do it,” Rustemeyer said in an interview. “All we have to do is work together to find a solution.”

The solution, of course, requires more than just tweaking. It requires a substantial cultural shift.

In North America at least, an obsession with peak of perfection is partly to blame for all this waste, and then there’s the cultural imperative to put more food on the table than can be possibly eaten rather than risk being considered cheap or poor.

We need to change the way we think about food.

But there’s also a large-scale disconnect in the system when half of all the food produced is thrown out, while children arrive hungry at schools across B.C. and Canada and close to 850,000 people rely on food banks to meet their most basic needs.

Farmers, processors and sellers — as Rustemeyer and Baldwin show in the film — hate the idea of waste but don’t know what to do about it.

There are simple, local initiatives such as gleaning, where volunteers and those in need can take what’s left in the field once the harvest is done. But somebody needs to organize it.

Linking sellers and producers with non-profits that distribute food to those in need is also a solution.

Table Matters in North Vancouver (www.tablematters.ca) is working on it. So is Quest Food Exchange (questoutreach.org). The Vancouver-based, not-for-profit has partnerships with food suppliers that enable it to offer low-income people a full range of groceries at prices they can afford.

But, as the filmmakers found, sometimes — especially with large-scale producers and processors — it costs less to compost or trash the food than to donate it.

Would it be different if governments allowed producers and sellers to get a tax deduction for donations? It’s worth someone at least doing the analysis.

All of this is worth talking about, and if suddenly those conversations start breaking, credit Rustemeyer and Baldwin for helping provoke them.

dbramham@vancouversun.com

• Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story will be screened at the Vancouver International Film Festival’s B.C. Gala on Oct. 6 at 1:30 p.m. and the New West Doc Fest on Oct. 22. It has its world premiere on Knowledge Network on Nov. 4 and has been selected for the film festivals in both Amsterdam and Copenhagen.

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In a scene from Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story, Grant Baldwin takes a look at an entire dumpster filled with packages of hummus that are still nearly a month away from their best before date.
 

In a scene from Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story, Grant Baldwin takes a look at an entire dumpster filled with packages of hummus that are still nearly a month away from their best before date.

 
In a scene from Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story, Grant Baldwin takes a look at an entire dumpster filled with packages of hummus that are still nearly a month away from their best before date.
Jenny Rustemeyer and Grant Baldwin challenged themselves for six months to eat only food that was going to be thrown out or was already in a dumpster. The result of their experiment is a documentary called Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story, which highlights the startling reality that nearly half of all the food produced, processed and sold in North America ends up in the trash.
 
 
 
 
 
 
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