Of the 100 measures to address climate change that are explored in the book Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming (Penguin Books, 2017), the method most responsive to personal action may be the one that’s #3 on the list: reduce food waste. On March 27, Woodstock Transition and the Woodstock Land Conservancy sponsored a showing of the eye-opening documentary Just Eat It at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation as part of their environmental film series, followed by discussion of how we can keep food out of our landfills. The screening was attended by 110 people. This is Part 4 of this series
Discarded food, buried in a pile with no oxygen, produces methane, a greenhouse gas about 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide, the most frequently identified culprit in climate change. An estimated 50 percent of the food grown in the U.S. ends up in landfills. Filmmakers Jen Rustemeyer and Grant Baldwin decided to see if they could go six months without buying groceries, subsisting entirely on food that was being thrown out.
The film Just Eat It shows Jen in a health food store, asking for day-old, blemished produce. The clerk clearly thinks she’s strange but willingly hands over a basket of fruit at no charge. However, the bulk of their food comes from dumpster diving. “I thought we were going to be struggling,” says Grant. Instead, their cupboards are crammed with the vast quantities of packaged goods they find in dumpsters outside food markets each night.
There are two dates manufacturers put on their labels, Grant explains. The sell-by date tells the store the date by which the manufacturer promises the food will be good when the customer gets home. Some activists believe this date should not be printed on the products. The use-by or best-by dates are indicators of quality, not safety, according to the filmmakers. “After that date, for example, pastry is no longer crisp. It creates the sense you can’t use the item one minute after midnight on that date.”
When Grant tries to buy food that is going to be thrown out because it’s “expired,” he’s told that the store legally cannot sell it. He says that’s not true. The only food required by law to be sold before the stamped date is infant formula.
The camera shows us an entire dumpster of packaged hummus, which Grant can’t resist gathering into his truck, storing in his fridge, and inviting friends over to take as much as possible. By the end of Jen and Grant’s six-month experiment, they have rescued $200,000 worth of food and spent $200 on groceries.
Even more shocking than the dumpsters of food are the interviews with farmers, who say 20 to 70 percent of their crop has to be thrown out because stores will not accept fruits and vegetables that have spots or are not shaped according to a specific standard. Bananas, for example, must conform to rules on diameter, length, and curvature. Customers will not buy imperfect food, so the stores don’t want it.
A farmer in British Columbia estimates that at peak harvest time, he works 14 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week, gathering and sorting his crops. When a significant percentage of his produce is discarded, all the labor, fertilizer, and water invested in that food has been wasted. “We are trashing our land to grow food no one eats,” says one commentator.
By tonnage, fruits and vegetables comprise the majority of the waste. Tonnages for meat and dairy are smaller, but the resources involved in production are much greater. It’s estimated that the water used in the production of one hamburger would be enough for a 90-minute shower.
The scale of food waste is mind-boggling, but there are remedies. A farmer outside Las Vegas hauls away excess food from hotels, processing 30 tons a day, or eight percent of the city’s food waste, to feed his 2500 pigs. After the harvesting season, some farmers allow gleaning, in which people gather food from the fields that was missed during the harvest. Manufacturers and stores can donate their excess to food pantries. “Companies are morally responsible for making sure food gets to the people who need it,” declare the filmmakers, “and we have the responsibility to demand it takes place.”
But the most effective measures are taken at the personal level, by everyday citizens who regulate what they buy, what they eat, and what they throw away. If enough of us change our habits, the cumulative effect will be huge.
After the screening, Sharon Burns-Leader of Bread Alone described the bakery’s procedures for minimizing waste in the production process, but she said that in order to satisfy customers, it’s necessary to make more bread than the shops can sell. All their unsold baked goods are taken to food banks, and everything left over goes to a hog farm or a brewery, or it’s picked up for compost.
Laura Petit, who works as the town of New Paltz recycling coordinator and serves as an Ulster County legislator, spoke about zero waste initiatives active in the county. Hannaford supermarkets donate millions of pounds of products to food banks. Their remaining food waste goes to farms for feeding livestock, to companies that create energy through bio-digesters, or to composting facilities. Frito-Lay has connected with farmers who take corn chips that have been pulled from the shelves and feed them to cows and chickens.
Jessica Riozzi, from Demorest Elementary School in Saugerties, has been teaching children conservation habits, from growing vegetables to collecting recycling. They have done a waste audit, measuring the leftovers from the school lunch program. When children develop less wasteful habits, adults are bound to follow.
For more information on food waste, or to schedule a screening of Just Eat It, go to http://www.foodwastemovie.com. The final showing in the 2019 Woodstock Transition film series will be about composting and will be held on Monday, April 29, 7 p.m.-8:30 p.m., at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation, 1682 Glasco Turnpike, Woodstock.
Tips for reducing food waste
Only buy what you can eat — even if the food is on sale.
Buy ugly fruits and vegetables. Blemishes can be cut off.
Don’t be a slave to “best by” dates. They only indicate peak freshness.
In the refrigerator and cupboards, organize newest groceries at the back, oldest in the front.
If you have more food than you can eat, freeze or dehydrate it.
Throw leftovers into soups, stews, or smoothies.
Feed excess food to animals.
Compost inedible parts of produce. If you can’t have a backyard compost, consider community options such as the Saugerties transfer station, where a composting permit costs $15 for both town residents and non-residents. Bring your scraps in a bucket to the transfer station, 1765 Route 212, between Woodstock and Saugerties. For information about the residential composting program, call 845-679-0514.