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, 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 only eat 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.
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 our listeners 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.