Just Eat It

Remember when we were children and our parents or our grandparents would scold us for wasting food? It could be prompted by not finishing what we’d served ourselves, to rejecting perfectly good food because of reasons they saw as frivolous? The scolding usually came with a morality lesson about starving children in some far-away-corner of the world, or better yet a story that started with “When I was your age…”?

What if our parents and grandparents were on to something?

JUST EAT IT: A FOOD WASTE STORY wants us to take a long hard look at just how much food we are knowingly and unknowingly tossing aside. It examines every step of the process; from harvest, to wholesale, to retail, to what we buy and keep in our own refrigerators. To underscore the flaws in the system, the documentarians themselves take on a six month challenge to live only on discarded food.

The very suggestion of such a challenge brings to mind images of our heroes rooting through trash bins with hopes of feasting on bread crusts and apple cores. However, that’s far from the case. We take for granted just how much food is thrown out by retailers and wholesalers every day – packaged food that is well within its “best-by” date that has simply outlived its usefulness in the eyes of the businesses looking to make maximum profits from it. Not only do our heroes Jen and Grant turn up some tasty options, but they turn them up in abundance.

This bright and vibrant doc wants us to think long and hard about all the ways in which we approach food. Take for instance the shelves of your farmer’s market or grocery store. If you had a perfectly symmetrical pyramid of oranges to choose from, you would happily take the five or six you wanted for the week and head on your merry way. But what if there were only four or five left? Would some voice in the back of your head say “those must not be any good”? Probably. In reality, there’s likely nothing wrong with them beyond the stigma of being “the last oranges on the shelf”.

Our entire approach to consumption is called into question – everything from our adherence to “Best Before” dates to the sheer amount of food we prepare and lay-out for our friends, guests, and clients. We live in a time of plenty, where not only can most of us have whatever sort of food we might crave, but we can have as much of it as we want. We are no longer bound by season or proximity. Whatever our stomach might crave is now shelved in mass quantities just blocks from our homes, and some of it will even come to us if we don’t go to it! It’s a delightful luxury, but it does not come without cost.

The cost – as the film deftly leaves us to consider – is that we have become profit-driven and desensitized. We could gather up the perfectly useable pieces of celery that are chopped away and turn it over to companies looking to use it to make something else, but it’s not cost-effective. We could sell off food that’s close to its expiry at a discount to people who would use it immediately, but that would cut into profits (and slant a public image). Instead we gather it up and throw it out…and think very little of filling entire garbage bags and dumpster bins with pounds and pounds of perfectly good food.

To say that is one thing, but we are visual creatures, so the film gives us a visual to cling to. In one of the film’s most iconic moments, we pull back over a dumpster the size of an above-ground pool just filled with still-wrapped packages of hummus. It’s probably a year’s worth of hummus – more than any one person would buy in a single go. Yet there it is, about to be trashed –  unopened, uneaten, untouched.

JUST EAT IT lays out clever scenes, memorable moments, and eye-opening details like a non-fiction buffet. It’s all in the hopes that someday we can take a bite out of the staggering amount of food we waste on this planet – an amount currently estimate at a jaw-dropping 40%.

What would our parents and grandparents think?

JUST EAT IT: A FOOD WASTE STORY plays Hot Docs 2014 tomorrow, Sunday April 27th – 9:45pm at TIFF Bell Lightbox. It plays again at The Scotiabank Theatre on Tuesday April 29th – 4pm (official website)