Because what we don’t eat matters as much as what we do.
The last time you went food shopping, did you accidentally drop a whole bag of groceries on your way home and forget to pick them up? Well, even if you didn’t actually do that, the amount of food that each of us, directly or indirectly, discards uneaten every day is pretty much the equivalent of one bag of groceries. That humongous waste of energy—in terms of labor, land, money and calories—is the inspiration behind the documentary Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story. According to statistics, 40 freakin’ percent of our food is trashed, and Grant Baldwin wondered how much of that food is still good and whether he could eat it. So Grant, being a director, documented his six-month adventure, with producer and partner Jenny Rustemeyer, of surviving on discard food, which, yes, involved not a little Dumpster-diving!
Turns out that if you’re an omnivore and don’t mind consuming, say, yogurt single-pointedly in a race to beat the expiration clock on that scavenged bounty, it’s not so hard to live off the, um, land—at least in Vancouver, B.C. In fact, Grant and Jenny found more discarded food than they could possibly eat. In six months, they spent only $200 and stockpiled $20,000 worth of food—their kitchen soon looked more like a mini mart than, well, a kitchen. They found cases of organic chocolate that wouldn’t expire for a year (why couldn’t that have been me?!), a Dumpster the size of a small pool filled with tubs of hummus with plenty of life left in them, enough chicken strips to make fajitas for an entire neighborhood, protein bars, granola, dozens of eggs, veggies, fruit. …
How is this possible? Sixty percent of what’s thrown away is thrown away because of misunderstandings, by buyers and sellers, about what “best by” and “sell by” and “use by” actually mean. Those words don’t actually mean a whole lot, but they give consumers, who want to buy the freshest food possible, the illusion that they are doing just that and give purveyors the illusion that they are provided just that. According to a New York Times article: “The dates on your packages have nothing to do with food safety, nor are they federally regulated. They are the manufacturer’s suggestion for when the products are at their peak quality. Properly stored food that looks good and smells good is probably good.” In fact, the only food product that has a federally regulated expiration date is infant formula. Good to know, eh? (That’s my Canadian accent!)
And that’s just the food that makes it into the grocery store. You would not believe how much perfectly good food doesn’t even get that far, because it has a blemish or is too long or fat or misshapen to meet the aesthetic criteria that govern it. As consumers we have been brainwashed, by being presented with only “flawless” produce, to believe that if something looks “better,” it must taste better and be better for us. One farmer estimates that 20 to 70 percent of the fruit he grows is wasted—and food banks don’t have the capacity to take the bulk of that surplus on.
Waste of all sorts—of time, energy, money, resources—has been like nails on chalkboard for me for nearly as long as I have had nails. My mother, perhaps to avenge her childhood as the daughter of scrimpers and savers, filled my own childhood with an embarrassment of food and toys and clothing. Because my brothers and I had to sit at the table and finish our meals regardless of how many snacks we’d eaten, I can’t say that there was an inordinate amount of food waste in our house—nor was there, thank goodness, obesity. But how many toys could three kiddos actually play with before they tired of them? And I remember thinking, when I was maybe 5, Do I really need the same poufy pinafored dress in navy and chocolate brown? (I know, you can’t imagine me wearing navy or brown—it’s amazing that I survived my traumatic childhood.)
That said, I did grow up on commercials. I did grow up besotted by the middle-class fantasy of entitlement to all things material. I have long been inducted into the army of buying-it-because-I-can, though I have, as I have matured, become slightly more circumspect, more rebellious, more willing to go AWOL and entertain the idea that “I really don’t need it!”
And I thought I was doing pretty well in the food department—I mean, I love me my food toooooo much not to eat it. And I do carry a to-go container of some sort with me when I eat out. But I took a good, hard look inside my refrigerator and freezer and realized I could do way better. This was the about-to-be-wasted or perhaps-to-be-wasted food in my refrigerator the week after I watched Just Eat It:
- a container of mushroom-spinach pâté that I made for Thanksgiving but which, besides a taste-testing lunch, I had not eaten because I got super sick over the holiday weekend and the dish became utterly unappealing.
- a baggie of snap peas, which I bought on impulse at Trader Joe’s because I love crunchy snax, but I watched them fade and mottle without being sufficiently moved to honor their life force by eating them.
- a half-empty jar of organic applesauce, purchased for my mother when she was visiting and kept with the hope that I will somehow use it.
- a whole young Thai coconut, purchased for a dinner-party project in September that didn’t end up happening—neither the project nor the party, but that’s another story. Every night I would tell myself that I needed to hack into it for my morning smoothie, but every morning I would totally forget as I went about my smoothie routine like a smoothie robot.
- about one-pancake’s worth of cornmeal pancake batter.
Probably not a “bad” list compared with what many people would come up with, but I find food waste so anathema that even though a quart of lentil soup that I’d frozen in a glass jar cracked (guess I didn’t leave enough head room!), I refused to trash it, as I have done after similar mishaps in the past, but just turned the jar upside-down to defrost and then ate the soup anyhoo. O.K., I’m not saying that you should try this at home, that there is absolutely no chance of a stray speck of glass making it into your spoon and then into your body, but, hey, I live dangerously, and can be as frugal as I can be extravagant.
Now it’s your turn: Open your refrigerator and take a good look inside. Yes, right now. I’ll wait. Really. Did you take a goooood look? Did you check out the shelves on the door, the butter saver, the back right corner of the middle shelf? The bottom of the veggie crisper? Did you find anything you couldn’t identify? Anything that looks like it belongs in a sci-fi flick? Three jars of, say, Dijon mustard?
One thing that has helped me reduce food waste is making space—not stuffing the fridge so full that I can’t see what I’ve got. And being more disciplined when I go grocery shopping—really thinking about what I can or will realistically eat, putting a kibosh on impulse purchases (we’ll see how that goes!). I do shop with a list, but I don’t meal-plan as if I’m running an elementary school cafeteria. I like to cook and freeze, but sometimes I freeze and freeze and freeze and forget to eat all the potential meals waiting to be defrosted. My freezer isn’t huge, but still. So I’ve told myself that I can’t make any more vats of anything for the purpose of freezing until I’ve eaten what I’ve already frozen. I just ate the last of the Cinnamon Snail’s lentil soup (made with capers and toasted pine nuts—yummmm!) for a ski lunch at A Basin, there’s only one meal’s left of sweet potato gnocchi (also made for, and not eaten on, Thanksgiving) and I do have enough pesto to see me through until spring, but my freezer was sooooooo bare I felt justified in brewing up a double batch of the Cinnamon Snail’s Thai Coconut Curry Soup, which allowed me to whittle away at my supply of frozen chickpeas and means I don’t have to make lunch for quite a while.
You can rent Just Eat It wherever you rent movies. For nearly everything you might want to know about not creating food waste and how to repurpose the waste you do create, including how to make brownies from leftover black beans and infused vodka from veggie bin scraps, check out food-scientist Dana Gunders’s Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook. Dana is featured in the movie, as is food-waste campaigner Tristram Stuart, whose got a fascinating TED talk on the subject. And if you want to keep diving down this rabbit hole, there’s also Jonathan Bloom’s blog. And for the 20-minute roundup, check out John Oliver’s hilarious take on wasting not. Remember, food not wasted is energy saved. Energy = time, money, resources, labor and calories. I’ve been so heartened by the passion of all these food-waste warriors that I’m almost ready to do a little Dumpster-diving myself—let me know if you want to join in the fun!
 And he, at least, has tried to donate his “excess” fruit. But I was at Whole Foods not too long ago, and after discovering how much food—from the salad bar, from the prepared-food stations, from the produce section—does not get donated, I asked customer service what was up. I was told that health laws prohibit Whole Foods from donating, say, that tray of curried cauliflower after it had maxed out its allotted time in the salad bar. Hope there are no hard feelings, Whole Foods, but that is so not true. In fact, the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in October 1996, protects you from liability if you donate food in good faith.
 Update: I did finally open and use said coconut, whose water and meat made two most delicious smoothies. 😉
 Yes, you can freeze in glass, but you do need to leave head room, and the sides of the jar need to be straight, no “shoulders,” which, alas, is why it’s not a good idea to freeze in mason jars.
Bonus Trax: Fun Food Facts
• the water imbedded in the food we throw out could meet the household needs of 500 million people!
• the water it takes to produce one hamburger, whether you eat it or toss it, is the equivalent of the water in a 90-minute shower!
• food waste creates climate change because the methane produced in the anaerobic environment of a landfill is more than 20 times as potent as CO2 in terms of trapping heat!
• most food-borne illnesses come from contamination (something that’s not supposed to be in the food getting into it & making you sick ), not from the natural process of decomposition.