VIFF 2014: Vancouver filmmakers discover food-waste excess in Just Eat It

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      Although you may have read facts or news about food waste, one of the most effective elements of Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story is the visuals.

      A dumpster, the size of a small swimming pool, is filled to the brim with discarded containers of hummus. Mountains of canned drinks and food, cartons of eggs, packages of pasta, and more—many of them before their expiry date—sit in garbage bins in lanes behind food-related businesses.

      Filmmakers Grant Baldwin and Jen Rustemeyer discovered this hidden and excessive bounty of edible food thrown out when they embarked upon a six-month experiment to live off discarded food.

      The Vancouver International Film Festival announced on Friday (September 26) that the resulting documentary won the #MustSeeBC contest, in which audiences vote for the B.C. film that they most want to watch. Consequently, Just Eat It will get an additional screening on October 4 (6:30 p.m.) at B.C. Spotlight Gala at the Vancouver Playhouse.

      It's no wonder it garnered such a popular response, as it tackles a pressing issue that's a part of all of our lives.

      Baldwin said he was inspired to make this film after making the 2010 documentary The Clean Bin Project, in which he and Rustemeyer competed to see who could produce the least amount of garbage in a year.

      After that film, they toured several schools to talk about that project. While they were conducting a waste audit at one school, to analyze what was in that school's garbage, Baldwin was struck by what couldn't be recycled.

      "There was all this untouched food: granola bars, pudding cups, stuff still packaged that kids were throwing out, and this was sort of a redlight, and at the same time, that's when we were hearing about the food waste stats, and the scale of it, and that really was the catalyst," he said by phone.

      Troubling information about food waste include the fact that one-third of the global food supply is not consumed. Farmers and grocers regularly discard or reject vegetables that do not measure up to consumers' standards of aesthetic appeal, even if the produce is edible. Also, one of the biggest sources of food waste comes from households, from people throwing out food based on best-before dates (which is different from an expiry date) to purchasing more food than a household can consume.

      There have been various attempts to rectify the problem. Seattle city council voted this week to impose fines on homeowners if more than 10 percent of their trash is compostable. Earlier this year, a French marketing campaign successfully countered that aesthetic prejudice by promoting oddly shaped produce as trendy with reduced prices. Balwin and Rustemeyer were aware of the freegan movement, or people who reclaim discarded food (and items), sometimes for anticonsumerist reasons. However, their approach was different.

      "We heard about it and the term freegan really bothered us because I think you get this connotation that people are just trying to sponge [off] our society or get something for free," he said, "and we actually attempted to purchase this food and we worked hard trying to get grocery stores to sell stuff they had taken off the shelf."

      Since the couple entered this new challenge "cold turkey", they didn't know where to look for food and encountered unexpected problems such as locked garbage bins. The initial phase, as shown in the film, proved very trying on them.

      But when they started looking further up the supply chain, they hit the motherload.

      In fact, they found such an excess amount of discarded food that they didn't know what to do with it. As Baldwin states in the film, they experienced conflicting feelings of excitement and sadness at discovering so much.

      "The stress started coming from us feeling guilty about wasting the food we'd found again because we were having the same problem that the wholesalers were having," he said. "We had too much inventory which had a limited shelflife, and we needed to give it out to people...because we couldn't manage it. And we actually did try to give it to food banks but they won't accept food that's been in a bin but they would've gladly taken all the food we found if they just donated it directly."

      Among the waste, they were able to find all the major food groups to fulfill their dietary needs, and didn't experience any health problems at all.

      "It wasn't until after the project—it was a week after—that we were at a five-star hotel and I got food poisoning," he said with a laugh.

      Since the project has ended, they both now value food much more. They also learned how much of a role that the consumer has in this issue, which the film links to problems such as excessive energy consumption, greenhouse gas production, water and land shortages, and more.

      "The idea in the beginning was to go and expose industry as being this waster and…what it actually turned into is this realization that in food waste everybody's playing a part and half of food waste is people in their homes….It's adding up to half of food waste. I was surprised by that but also at the same time I kind of find that empowering….This is something tangible and it's something that we do three times a day and we actually have a choice in it."

      Just Eat It screens at the Rio Theatre on September 28 (6:30 p.m.); SFU on September 30 (10:30 a.m.); and the Vancouver Playhouse on October 4 (6:30 p.m.) and 6 (1:30 p.m.) .

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