It’s never revealed who came up with the idea, but director Grant Baldwin and producer Jenny Rustemeyer decided to make a movie about an unusual decision about their eating habits. Call it “dumpster diving,” call it “eating garbage,” but don’t call this movie a boring or dull examination about the way we grow, cultivate, shop for and purchase our food. In Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story, a Canadian couple sets out to determine how much of our food ends up wasted, and how our habits and perceptions determine what we buy, why we buy, and how long we keep it in our fridges and cupboards.
The rules of the game are simple: the couple can only survive on food waste for six months, although they are allowed to eat what friends and family serve. Leftovers are okay, buying food that’s discounted because it’s about to expire is okay, but ideally, the plan is to basically scrounge through the dumpsters and trash cans of the super markets in order to get a sense of the reported one-third of our food that ends up in the trash. Sounds disgusting, right?
Admittedly, I wonder at times if the couple doesn’t get off light. There seems to be a repeated series of happy accidents that offer a proverbial feast of food stuffs like the cartons of still relatively fresh eggs Jenny discovers in the dumpster behind a Whole Foods, and Grant’s friend the photographer who tips him off about a stash of pizza fixins. Having said that, I can say as a former grocery store employee that the amount of food waste is still obscene, and caches of bread, frozen food, canned goods and other items, still days away from expiration, end up in garbage bins.
We occasionally cut away from the experiment to talk to food experts, farmers and activists who are all trying to make the point that if we just change our perceptions of what we eat, then there will be enough food for everyone. It’s how we learn that unless the item you’re shopping for is baby formula, the number that we typically call an expiry date is actually addressing quality, as in “best before.” It doesn’t mean that it’s poisonous or deadly or inedible afterwards.
There’s a fascinating turn in the film when Grant and Jen’s celebration of their success becomes a grim reminder that they’re two people saving thousands of dollars worth of food, and that’s there’s still thousands more heading to the landfill. Although the movie starts with a Morgan Spurlock “Hey, we’re up for anything” kind of vibe, Grant the director starts to move your emotional response to greater feelings of outrage and regret. You then realize that there’s really no joke in what they’re doing, and that maybe recovering perfectly good food from the trash bins of the world’s stores should become a new benchmark for social responsibility along with shorter showers, riding the bus and recycling.
Baldwin and Rustemeyer previously made The Clean Bin Project, a film about promoting zero waste, so they definitely know how to push all the right buttons. As characters, Grant and Jen are open and easygoing, and despite initial doubt somewhere around the one month mark as to how their going to get by, it’s fun to watch them succeed and turn it into a story of overwhelming success. The doc itself is well-made, too, with some inventive titles and graphics, and a good use of a variety of cameras to capture the journey. Also, the film manages to balance both its local focus on Grant and Jen while thinking globally with sources and suppliers.
Just Eat It reminded me a lot of another Hot Docs hit called Garbage: The Revolution Starts at Home. The Andrew Nisker film followed an average suburban family who were challenged to stockpile their garbage for three months in order to see how much trash the average person throws away. These kinds of “everyman” films are wonderfully subtle forms of activist filmmaking, even if its “stars” don’t see it as such. As for Just Eat It, the film makes a powerful case while using a light touch. It’s fun, inspiring, insightful, and it winds you up to get ready to do something about all that food we waste. You may not be lucky enough to find a year’s supply of hummus in a dumpster near you, but that doesn’t mean you might not get there one day.
Just Eat It really sells the audience on its core idea of excessive food waste and our complacency in creating, thanks to a compelling pair of main characters in the form of the film’s director and its producer.