'Just Eat It' Demonstrates a Widespread System of Food Waste

Filmmakers Grant Baldwin and Jenny Rustemeyer made these meals from food that would otherwise have gone uneaten. (Peg Leg Films)

A couple weeks ago I made the Chili Shrimp recipe from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything. I am not a very practiced cook, which was why my partner bought me this book, and also why he creates bookmarks with the word “yum” and tiny, hand-drawn illustrations of the food to mark those recipes that I manage to successfully pull off. In any case, I whipped this one up, and as usual, made too much. We scraped the leftovers into a plastic container and put them into the fridge “for later.”

Those two-week-old shrimp swam vividly into my mind as I watched Just Eat It, a new documentary about food waste that screens Tuesday, June 2, 7pm at the David Brower Center in Berkeley. You know where that container of leftover shrimp resides, in the back of my refrigerator with the “science experiments.” And there it will remain with all that other forgotten food until the urge to purge takes hold (a rare occurrence) or until something starts to smell. (I am a guy.)

In eye-popping (and often gorgeous) detail, Just Eat It illustrates how much food we waste in North America. For the record, forty percent of all the food raised or grown in our part of the world is left uneaten. Globally the figure is a whopping one third.

Filmmakers Jen Rustemeyer and Grant Baldwin
Filmmakers Jen Rustemeyer and Grant Baldwin (Pure Souls Media)

The filmmakers have come up with novel ways to demonstrate just what this waste means, starting with their own habits in the kitchen. After learning about the billions of dollars of food that is discarded each year in North America, documentarians Grant Baldwin and Jenny Rustemeyer decide to live for six months on food that either has been or would otherwise be thrown away. This exercise in bartering, scrounging and dumpster diving yields an unexpected bounty, which the couple begins to share with friends and family.

Just Eat It Director and film subject Grant Baldwin is shocked to find a swimming pool sized dumpster filled with discarded hummus.
Just Eat It Director and film subject Grant Baldwin is shocked to find a swimming pool sized dumpster filled with discarded hummus. (Peg Leg Films – Scene from Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story)

Along the way, they explore the various points where perfectly good food gets tossed out for various reasons. A Fresno peach and nectarine farmer describes how less-than-cosmetically-perfect fruit ends up wasted before it even leaves the processing plant. A Salinas celery farmer demonstrates just how much of the plant gets left out in the field.

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Once the produce comes to market, aesthetic, commercial and regulatory concerns determine whether it will wind up in our grocery bags. But even that is no guarantee that the food will be consumed. Nearly a quarter of what we buy goes uneaten. Once again, check the progress of those specimens growing in the back of your fridge.

A grocery shopper picks through fruit in the produce section. Most fruits and vegetables are culled due to aesthetic issues rather than safety concerns.
A grocery shopper picks through fruit in the produce section. Most fruits and vegetables are culled due to aesthetic issues rather than safety concerns. (Peg Leg Films – Scene from Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story)

Just Eat It includes interviews with Dana Gunders, a San Francisco-based Food and Agriculture Project Scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, activist and author (Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal) Tristram Stuart and journalist and author (American Wasteland) Jonathan Bloom. Bloom points out that our culture hasn’t always condoned such waste. During the not-so-distant past (think Great Depression and World War II) waste was unheard of. Bloom finds it odd that wasting food isn’t taboo, considering there are fines for littering and for failing to recycle. Wasting food is not only widespread; it’s condoned. Think about how the ever-increasing portions served up in North American restaurants encourage us to both over-eat AND waste food, which, during this period of extended drought in the western U.S., is really just the wasting of water, energy, and other finite resources.

Filmmakers Baldwin and Rustemeyer effectively demonstrate that food waste is a problem that is both social and systematic. We all participate, consciously or not. After watching Just Eat It, I was moved to clean out my refrigerator and took a silent vow to be mindful of what I put back into it. Maybe next time I go to the farmers market I will buy that less-than-perfect piece of fruit, or that lonely bunch of greens…

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Just Eat It plays Tuesday, June 2, 7pm at the David Brower Center in Berkeley. There will be a post-film conversation with Dana Frasz, founder and director of Food Shift, an organization dedicated to reducing food waste in the Bay Area, and Ruben E. Canedo, current coordinating chair of the UC Berkeley Food Security Committee and Co-Chair of the UC System Global Food Initiative Food Access & Security Committee. For more information, visit browercenter.org.

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