Exploring food waste

On the evening of April 11, a group of students, including myself, along with Brent Wasser, sustainable food and agriculture program manager of the Zilkha Center, attended a screening of the 2014 documentary “Just Eat It.” Following a sourdough pizza dinner at Baba Louie’s in Great Barrington, Mass., the group of students walked over to the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center for the documentary screening.

The documentary followed married couple Grant Baldwin and Jen Rustemeyer as they constrained their diet for six months to only discarded foods. What was the point of such an undertaking? For Baldwin and Rustemeyer, it was to expose the inefficiencies and injustices of food waste taking place in modern farm fields, our processing facilities, our grocery stores, and our very homes. “Just Eat It” showed that within farm fields and processing facilities, vast quantities of food are left unharvested or are discarded because of aesthetic “flaws,” like a banana not being curved enough. The film also showed grocery store dumpsters full of edible, packaged foods that were thrown out either because one unit was deemed unsellable or because the sell by date (but not expiration date) had passed.

Besides exposing how food waste occurs, the documentary also made moral and environmental arguments demonizing the activity. Morally, it’s upsetting – one might even say sinful – that one in six people in the United States are food insecure, while at the same time 40 percent of the food grown is wasted. That’s not to mention the fact that we produce 150-200 percent of the amount of food needed to feed our population. Furthermore, with regards to the environment, discarding food means discarding all the resources and energy put into producing the food. For example, the film stated that the amount of water used to produce one hamburger is the equivalent of a 90-minute shower. In addition, food sent to landfills to decompose release methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times as strong as carbon dioxide in its warming effects.

By the end of the film, the focus seemed to shift towards consumer food waste, which makes up roughly 50 percent of all food waste in the United States. During a Q&A session with the producers, the student group asked the question, “What can be done at institutions like ours to reduce food waste?” The directors responded with two suggestions: to measure our food waste so that we have a sense of any progress we make and to remove trays from our dining halls – supposedly, trays encourage people to take more food than do plates.

Overall, the audience that attended the screening at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington seemed receptive of the documentary’s message about consumer responsibility for food waste. Following the film, the group of college students discussed the implications of the film for the food waste that occurs on our own campus, over some chilled dairy confectionaries. “What can be done?” seemed to be the main question, and solutions ranged from posters in the dining halls to demonstrations exposing how much food gets composted or discarded.

The film not only sparked discussion among the students in attendance at the “Just Eat It” event, but also got me thinking about the problem of food waste. To me, the question of “Why does food waste happen on campus?” seems to be just as important as “What can we do about it?” If we don’t ask why, then we’re only treating the symptoms, instead of the root cause of the problem.

As I see it, after viewing “Just Eat It,” people don’t think about where food comes from. When the concept of food becomes separated from the land, water and people involved in its production, it’s not surprising that it can be taken for granted. This separation is reinforced by the commodification of food, as students primarily consume food prepared by others, and by the sheer busyness of college students (who has the time to think about these things?).

Considering food waste is really an exercise in mindfulness. In other words, giving thought to how our day-to-day actions impact not just ourselves, but also other people, animals and plants, and our environment. Kids at the College are smart, that’s undebatable. But are we mindful?