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In 'Just Eat It,' Filmmakers Feast For 6 Months On Discarded Food

Nov 18, 2015
Originally published on November 19, 2015 2:45 pm

The upcoming Thanksgiving holiday is generally celebrated with a bounty of food — and a mountain of leftovers, some of which, let's face it, will end up in the trash.

Unfortunately, this waste is not just a once-a-year event: Roughly 133 billion pounds of food go uneaten each year in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As we've reported, a lot of that food loss starts at the top of the supply chain. Blemished berries get tossed at the farm, and warehouses dump food that's no longer perfectly fresh. Then about half of wasted food gets thrown out by consumers buying, cooking and serving more food than we can eat.

Filmmakers Jen Rustemeyer and Grant Baldwin saw similar amounts of discarded food in Canada, where they live. So, for six months, the couple vowed to eat only food entering the waste stream. They document their experiment in Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story, which is now available on demand online.

Though food waste seems like a daunting issue, "there's a lot that we as individuals can do. It's not like other environmental and social issues, where it's a systemic problem that we don't play a part in," Rustemeyer tells Audie Cornish, host of NPR's All Things Considered.

Indeed, by the end of the experiment, the couple's friends had come to see the value of this discarded food, too. "People went grocery shopping at our home all the time," Baldwin says.

A scene from Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story. Filmmaker Grant Baldwin checks out a dumpster of excess, but edible, food.
Courtesy of Peg Leg Films

Rustemeyer and Baldwin spoke with Cornish about what they saw as they made the film. Highlights from their conversation are below, edited for length and clarity.

By the end of this six-month experiment, how much food did you find, and how much money did you save doing it?

Rustemeyer: We couldn't classify how much food we actually found, because it was immeasurable. But we categorized the amount we took home, and it was about $20,000 of food. So, in the six months, we spent about $200 on groceries, and we had about $20,000 of food in our house.

What were the rules you set for yourselves?

Baldwin: We went cold-turkey and we said we're going to consume only food that is destined for the trash or already in it. So we could pay for it, but we found that most places would not sell us dated food. And we ended up resorting to dumpsters and behind wholesale warehouses, and we found copious amounts of food.

We found 18-foot dumpsters all the time filled with food, and the majority of that was because it was near the date label, but rarely past it.

Talk about sell-by date labels, because that's a really important factor in the food chain of waste.

Rustemeyer: That's something that we learned when we were researching the film. Those date labels — especially the "best before" date — it's really all about peak freshness, it has absolutely nothing to do with safety. And I think people are getting really confused and thinking that's the absolute last moment that they can possibly consume that item, and it's leading to a lot of waste.

But are they confused? I mean, I want fresh food. That sounds good.

Rustemeyer: Sure, but we're talking about minute differences — when the pastry is the flakiest. You could definitely eat it a couple of days past the date.

What did you actually find? What did you end up eating?

Baldwin: Dried goods like rice, frozen meats.

Rustemeyer: Bread, lots of dairy, even maple syrup we found once.

Maple syrup is pretty expensive.

Baldwin: Yeah, I couldn't believe that was in the bin — and $13,000 worth of organic chocolate bars as well.

In what ways are we driving waste just in our own choices when we go shopping?

Rustemeyer: I think it's really ingrained in us to want the best of the best. Same at the grocery store: You're picking your apples and you're rooting through [the bin,] looking for the most perfect apples. And we forget, actually, they're all the most perfect apple. They made it through the entire system, and all the energy and water and the transportation that went into bringing them there. I'm trying to retrain myself to just pick the first apple that I touch.

And the stores do make an effort to provide us with that best-looking apple.

Baldwin: Yeah, it's quite shocking, the rules that are put in place [by the grocery store] that the farmers have to follow. We went to a peach farmer in California. He says he has between 30 and 70 percent of his peaches wasted because of cosmetic issues only.

Can you give some tips for trying to reduce food waste at home, things that you learned during the course of this project?

Rustemeyer: There's so many things people can do at home. Probably the simplest one is just buying as much food as you think you can eat in a week. Something that we do at home is have an "eat-me-first" bin in our fridge now, so it's just where we put our leftovers or our half-onions, and we know we just need to go there first.

Baldwin: What I've been doing is just following the stock boy around as he's pulling fruit and vegetables off the shelf and putting them on the bottom. Usually, I just take the stuff off the bottom. Sometimes they give me a funny look. They want to make sure you get the best stuff, right, so they'll be like, 'No, no, sir, I've got new stuff over here.' And I'll be like, 'No, no, no. I want to rescue this one.'

There are many families in this country that go hungry. Did you worry about belittling that experience?

Baldwin: Sure. We originally looked around our house and areas around where we live for food. And we realized there were places that were frequented by people who needed to go in those bins as part of their life. So we would drive out of the city to wholesale areas to find food, and we didn't encounter, really, anyone else there. So we were sensitive to that, and we realized it was a self-imposed project, and we could've stopped any time and gone to the grocery store and bought food.

Rustemeyer: Really, we shouldn't even call it food waste, because of all the connotations associated with that word. It's surplus. It's extra food in our system that should not be in the landfill, that needs to get to people who need it.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We're going to take a few minutes now to stop and poke around in the back of your refrigerator. Think for second. There's probably a Tupperware or two of forgotten leftovers, maybe a wilted carrot or half a lemon that's seen better days. Some of this is going to end up in the garbage. On average, a quarter of the food you buy is never eaten. There's more from the markets and discarded in the fields - an estimated 133 billion pounds of wasted food annually, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Filmmakers Jen Rustemeyer and Grant Baldwin saw similar waste in Canada where they live. The couple wanted to know two things. How does this food end up as trash, and could they eat any of it? Their documentary "Just Eat It" answers both of those questions, and they're here to talk more about it. Jen and Grant, welcome to the program.

GRANT BALDWIN: Thanks for having us.

JEN RUSTEMEYER: Thank you.

CORNISH: Jen, to start, by the end of this six month experiment, how much food did you find, and how much money did you save doing it?

RUSTEMEYER: Well, we couldn't classify how much we actually found because it was immeasurable. But we categorized the amount that we took home, and it was about $20,000 worth of food. So in the six months, we spent about $200 worth on groceries, and we had $20,000 worth of food in our house.

CORNISH: And Grant, what were the rules you set for yourselves?

BALDWIN: Basically, we went cold turkey, and we said we're going to consume only food that is destined for the trash or already in it. And so we could pay for it, but we found that most places would not sell us dated food. And we ended up resorting to dumpsters and behind wholesale warehouses. And we found copious amounts of food.

CORNISH: There's one scene - we have a clip of it here - where you score quite a bit of food from this massive dumpster.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "JUST EAT IT")

BALDWIN: And it was the size of a small swimming pool, and it was completely filled with hummus. It's unlike anything we'd seen so far. And initially, I thought, oh, it must have all gone bad; they're throwing it out. And when I looked at it, it had three-and-a-half weeks left on the best-before date.

CORNISH: Grant, how common was it to find that amount of food? I mean, in this case, you're swimming in hummus.

BALDWIN: We found 18-foot dumpsters all the time filled with food. And the majority of that was thrown away because of - it was close to the date label but very rarely passed it.

CORNISH: And talk about that labeling 'cause that's one factor that comes in to play in the sort of food chain of waste.

RUSTEMEYER: That's something that we learned when we were researching the film, is that those date labels, especially the best-before date - it's really all about peak freshness. It has absolutely nothing to do with safety. And I think people are getting really confused and thinking that's, like, the absolute last moment that they could possibly consume that item. And it's leading to a lot of waste.

CORNISH: But are they confused or - I mean, I want fresh food. That sounds good.

RUSTEMEYER: Sure, but we're talking about minute differences - I mean, when the pastry is the flakiest. You could definitely eat it a couple of days past the date.

CORNISH: What did you actually find? What did you actually end up eating?

BALDWIN: Dried goods like rice, frozen meats.

RUSTEMEYER: Bread, lots of dairy, even maple syrup we found once.

CORNISH: Maple syrup's pretty expensive.

BALDWIN: Yeah. I couldn't believe that was in the bin - and $13,000 worth of organic chocolate bars as well.

CORNISH: What?

RUSTEMEYER: It was like...

BALDWIN: Yeah, 13,000.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: That's how much it was. I remember seeing the chocolate in the movies, but it was that much money?

BALDWIN: Yeah. We figured it out. We also had a friend that went often with us, and he brought, like, six or seven cases home.

CORNISH: So you've talked to us about kind of best-by dates and sell-by dates that happens at the store. Another thing is is our own behavior as grocery store customers. In what ways are we kind of driving waste just in our choices when we go shopping?

RUSTEMEYER: I think it's really ingrained in us to want the best of the best. And same at the grocery store. I mean, you're picking your apples, and you're rooting through them, looking for the most perfect apples. And we forget that actually, they're all the most perfect apples. They made it through the entire system and all the energy and the water and the transportation that went into bringing them there. I'm trying to retrain myself to just pick the first apple that I touch.

CORNISH: And the stores do make an effort, though, to provide us that best-looking apple.

BALDWIN: Yeah. It's quite shocking the rules that are put in place that the farmers have to follow by the grocery store. So we went to a peach farmer in California who says he has between 30 and 70 percent of his peaches wasted because of cosmetic issues only.

CORNISH: I have to say it was traumatic, some of those scenes of the discard trucks where they would just be an entire dump truck of fruit that was imperfect in one way or another and that they couldn't even really give to, like, food banks, right? I mean, that didn't necessarily solve the problem.

BALDWIN: Yeah. Well, food banks would love to have it, but who's going to drive it from the middle of Fresno, Calif., to the next food bank? That's a real logistics issue. And that's a big part of the problem. But also - well, maybe we don't need to grow that many peaches if we accept peaches that are imperfect.

CORNISH: You know, I have to say, it was daunting watching this documentary because there's waste at every stop on the food chain, literally, to the point where it made me feel like even if I chose the first apple, it would necessarily change anything.

RUSTEMEYER: Well, no. The amazing thing about food waste is that 50 percent of all the food that's wasted is wasted by consumers. That's just regular people like you and me buying too much and serving too much and eating too much and wasting too much. And so there's a lot that we, as individuals, can do. It's not like other environmental and social issues where it's a systemic problem that we don't play a part in.

CORNISH: Can you give our listeners some tips for trying to reduce waste at home, things that you learned over the course of this project?

RUSTEMEYER: There's so many things that people can do at home. Probably the most simple one is to just buy as much food as you know you can eat in the week. Something that we do at home is that we have an eat-me-first bin in our fridge now. And so it's just where we put our leftovers or our half onions, and we know to go there first. That food needs to be consumed before the rest of the food.

BALDWIN: What I've been doing is following the stock boy around as he's pulling fruit and vegetables off-the-shelf and putting them under the cart and putting the newest stuff out. I go and shop off the bottom because usually that stuff's still perfectly fine.

RUSTEMEYER: So that's the point at which the store will still let you buy it, right - like, before it goes into...

BALDWIN: Sometimes they give me a funny look. They're like - they really want to make sure you get the best stuff, right? And they're like, oh, no, no, Sir, I got new stuff over here. I'm like no, no, I want to rescue this one.

CORNISH: (Laughter) What's the weirdest food you had to rescue?

BALDWIN: Oh, man, the curried pickled herring. I just - I'm like - I brought it home and regretted it instantly. I just had no desire to eat that.

CORNISH: What happened to that curried pickled herring?

BALDWIN: Oh, we had some family that really liked it, and so we'd give it away. I mean, people were grocery shopping at our home all the time.

CORNISH: I think there is a lot of shame when it comes to food insecurity, right? There are many families in this country that go hungry and - did you worry about kind of belittling that experience?

BALDWIN: Sure. I mean, we originally looked around our house and in areas around where we live for food, and we realized that there were places that were frequented by people that needed to go in those bins as part of their life. And so we would drive out of the city to wholesale areas to find food, and we didn't encounter really anyone else there.

So we were sensitive to that, and we realized it was a self-imposed project and we could've stopped anytime and gone to the grocery store and bought food. But not really knowing where your next meal is coming from, we got a slight sense of that but nothing like the reality.

RUSTEMEYER: Really, we shouldn't even call it food waste because of all the connotations associated with that word. It's surplus. It's extra food in our system that should not be in the landfill that needs to get to people who need it.

CORNISH: Thank you both for speaking with us.

BALDWIN: Thanks very much.

RUSTEMEYER: Thanks so much.

CORNISH: Filmmakers Jen Rustemeyer and Grant Baldwin - their documentary is called "Just Eat It," and you can see it on Amazon, iTunes or On Demand. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.