About 54 minutes into the documentary Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story, someone stumbles onto an extraordinary find. Grant Baldwin, also the film's director, is four months into a six-month experiment with his film producer wife, Jen Rustemeyer, of subsisting on food waste alone, and the camera shows Baldwin climbing on top of an industrial-sized dumpster filled with hundreds of tubs of perfectly good, nonexpired hummus.
The dumpster "was the size of a small swimming pool, and it was completely filled with hummus," Baldwin says. His dominant expression is not one of "Ooh! What luck!" It's shock.
It's worth mentioning that Baldwin and Rustemeyer didn't start the experiment from a commune, already preaching to their friends about the virtue of reusable menstrual cups. And they're not new crusaders jettisoning some tired corporate existence for a truer path. They're comfortable, middle-class white folks living in Vancouver, British Columbia—and yes, the ecologically conscious kind who store their bulk items in jars. Over the course of the six-month experiment, they allow viewers into real and very frustrating moments. More importantly, they take viewers down a very strange rabbit hole exposing a side of the North American economy few ever see.
The rabbit hole opens up soon after the couple discovers a reliable source of food waste: wholesale dumpsters, located just outside the city. From that moment on, we watch Baldwin and Rustemeyer shopping through enormous dumpsters full of pristinely packaged kidney beans, crackers, yogurt, and much, much more. The dumpsters don't look dirty, they look like what would happen if someone turned a whole supermarket upside down and shook out the contents. There's no scarcity. Baldwin and Rustemeyer look bored. Eventually the couple has so much food that they allow their friends to take items from their pantry, and Baldwin gains 10 pounds from overeating because he doesn't want to rewaste the food they collect.
According to the various authors and experts interviewed by the documentarians, an estimated 40 percent of food grown in the United States is wasted, often just because of cosmetics (spots, odd shapes) alone. This is a post–World War II phenomenon, a moment in history when many modern American consumption habits took root.
But alongside food waste, food insecurity has also grown since mid-century. In an excellent feature on American hunger for National Geographic in 2014, writer Tracie McMillan reported that "the number of people going hungry has grown dramatically in the US, increasing to 48 million by 2012—a fivefold jump since the late 1960s, including an increase of 57 percent since the late 1990s."
Rustemeyer and Baldwin aren't food-insecure. They even have the luxury of time and mobility to go track down food that's been thrown out. The tragedy of the documentary is that the bounty of the food-waste experiment seems wasted on them.
And there's the mind-fuck. Food waste, it turns out, is as much a part of a capitalist food system as the spotless, shiny McIntosh apples displayed at the supermarket. The more you waste, the more they can sell. Not wasting is actually bad for business. The system also benefits the already privileged with blemish-free produce and huge portion sizes while needlessly depriving the less privileged of healthy, affordable food. The system's excess then bleeds enormous quantities of food waste into landfills, where decomposition then turns that waste into methane, further contributing to global warming, and further exacerbating the extremes between the haves and have-nots.
At the end of the film, one of the experts interviewed concludes that a food-waste epidemic doesn't require drastic moves. Instead, he says, we all need to do our part to shift our cultural expectations of what food should look like, how much meat we need to eat, how much we need to buy, and what sell-by dates are. It's an ethical consumer's demand-side argument, not dissimilar to the demand-side case that consumers need to be incentivized to drive less in order to control climate change.
That answer feels frustratingly empty. Nothing about food waste is accidental. After all, food waste is merely the product of a system that generated those cultural expectations to begin with, a system that will almost certainly continue to incentivize exploitation, waste, and ruin if the rules of that system aren't fundamentally changed. That feeling of frustration, though, may be the single most useful thing about the documentary: It leaves a viewer hungry for something different.