By Wayne Roberts, Visiting Scholar

Despite minimal publicity, students had to sign up weeks in advance to reserve a seat for a packed food event held on November 24 in the cavernous William Doo Auditorium at the University of Toronto’s New College.

Was the huge crowd lured by a professional event organizer offering samples of exquisite delicacies and a chance to hear a celebrity chef or author speak on the promising possibilities of delicious food?

Not exactly.

U of T graduate student Tammara Soma, in partnership with New College food and urban studies teacher Lauren Baker, organized the event on a shoestring budget that came out of Soma’s own pocket. Working in a small group and using the Twitter hashtag #foodwastestudy as their community notice board, it was a preview piece in the U of T Bulletin that helped push attendance at the event over the top.

The theme of the evening was food waste. Snacks for early arrivals were provided by Food Not Bombs, a caterer known for serving up free treats scrounged by the group’s renowned dumpster divers.

The main attraction was a low-budget documentary film called Just Eat It, which features a couple who dined exclusively on discarded food for six months. In lieu of dessert, the movie was followed by a knowledgeable panel and an impassioned hour-long Q & A session.

Photo of discarded hummus.

Just Eat It director and film subject Grant Baldwin is shocked to find a swimming pool sized dumpster filled with discarded hummus. (Photo credit: Peg Leg Films)

The size, youth and enthusiasm of a full house for such an event is a sure sign that, as Bob Dylan might have crooned during his folkie-protest days, something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is.

The “something” is food waste, the sorry end to one-third of the world’s food supply. Estimated to cost the world 427 billion dollars a year to dispose of, this level of waste is almost automatically juxtaposed by the figure of one-third of people around the world who suffer from either acute hunger or chronic malnutrition.

The evening belies the typical stereotype of campus food enthusiasm as an elitist expression of la dolce vita – spoiled youth obsessed with fine, local, sustainable, whole, healthy, pristine and gorgeous food.

Instead, the November 24 event was more precisely about valuing food and expressing gratitude for what it can do for health, well-being, justice and the environment.

A full house of young people eager to devour information and analysis about food waste indicates that valuing, and not just appreciating, good food is what it’s all about. The emerging agenda of university-level food studies programs, which integrate food, justice, health and environment issues under one emerging discipline, reflects this growing attitude as well.

The much talked-about film – featuring the appealing and comical couple Jen Rustemeyer and Grant Baldwin doing unappealing things to rescue perfectly good food from the landfill – certainly was a major draw, and deservedly so, if only because the film doesn’t fall victim to the imperative “to tell it like it is”.

Indeed, the film tells us nothing whatsoever about food waste. Instead, it shows us the amount of waste the couple discovered during their six-month ordeal – exactly the kind of experiential learning that today’s Generation Instagram relates to.

As the famous phrase about a picture being worth a thousand words suggests, this method of teaching is so powerful and evocative that it is not uncommon for people to lose their analytical bearing in such a discussion.

Therefore, in order to keep myself in check while watching the movie, I prepared this five-point checklist, which might prove useful in evaluating any future presentations on food waste from a food systems point of view.

  1. Waste is a verb, not a noun. Just because we waste food that we can’t eat doesn’t mean that the uneaten food is inherently “waste”. In fact, there is a huge range of changes that can be made to turn waste into a resource. Waste departments of cities say they’re in the business of waste management when they should be in the business of resource management, and they say they’re in the business of waste diversion when they should be in the business of waste conversion – turning waste into livestock feed, compost and bio-fuel. We’re wasteful for missing this opportunity, but we should not blame uneaten food for being turned into waste. We need to see ourselves as receiving a gift from all Creation, and as stewards responsible for passing on such gifts. The process of spiritual rediscovery starts to be expressed when we banish the use of waste as a noun from our vocabulary.
  2. There are hundreds of practical things that individuals, groups and governments can do either to reduce or repurpose food waste. Some people see the enormous potential for reforms and conclude that the food waste problem is mainly a matter of tweaking the system. People who understand food systems see the need to go beyond tweaking; they pinpoint the need for a profound transformation of basic food infrastructure. For example, fostering a more localized food system ends the “metabolic rift” between the nutrients taken out of the soil to produce food and the nutrients that are dumped into a landfill instead of back into the land. In a more local food system, the trip from farm to fork is as short as the trip from fork back to farm – reused, recycled and repurposed food can be put to use and not hauled away to landfills or recycling stations. Re-calculating the true lifecycle cost of local food and long-distance imports by identifying the cost of both trips is an example of the wholesale rethinking that is needed.
  3. People who follow the life cycle of food – from farm to fart, as it’s sometimes called – know that only a small percentage of food waste ends up in a garbage can. Waste pours from every pore of the food system. It’s in the high-energy corn and soy fed to livestock, instead of the foods these animals evolved to eat, like grass, bugs and scrap. It’s in the grey water created by washing dishes that goes down the drain and into the lake, river or ocean instead of being piped into a garden where the nutrients and irrigation water can be used, or to a greenhouse where heat can be extracted to heat the building. There is waste at every stage, but it is less visible because we don’t pay to landfill it – we just dump it into the environment and pollute it for free. Cleaning up our act means dealing with all forms of waste – including the waste that’s beneath the surface and easier to ignore – and not just the waste we put in our garbage cans.
  4. Those who study food systems don’t lay much of a guilt trip on wasteful individuals. They blame the food system. Today’s food system emerged after World War II and was designed to end scarcity – then a major cause of hunger. Today, we are awash with more food than we know what to do with, which is why we spend 427 billion dollars a year to deal with wasted food. All but one percent of research dollars go to producing more food, much of which will be wasted, while barely a penny goes to developing smarter ways of consuming the food we already have. The money spent to get rid of food waste is how societies avoid dealing with our need to learn to live with abundance, not scarcity, and to design new institutions, priorities and incentives to move to a food system based on resource conservation, not resource destruction.
  5. The safest way to reuse, recycle and repurpose uneaten food is to use it for livestock, compost and biofuel. But some uneaten foods are of high enough quality that they can be enjoyed by and contribute to the health of people. If that food is safe, nutritious and tasty – as is the case with many foods that have passed their “best before” date without reaching their “use before” deadline – then these foods should not be used to add to the stigma endured by people on low income when these foods are set aside exclusively for them.
Photo of woman in the dairy aisle

A woman checks date labels in the dairy section. Many consumers throw out perfectly edible food because they are confused by what best before dates really mean. (Photo credit: Peg Leg Films)

In France, foods with odd shapes (bent carrots or bumpy apples) are sold at a discount. In California, organic produce that’s cosmetically challenged is sold at discounted rates for school meals. In Brazilian food terminals, minor blemishes like bruises on squash are removed, and the produce is turned into a soup provided to volunteers active in neighborhood associations.

But the poorest and most vulnerable people in the country should not be turned into disposal sites for food that others consider inedible. The money to allow vulnerable people to buy and eat safe, nutritious and tasty food in dignity will become readily available when we stop wasting billions on land-filling waste and start to earn billions by repurposing it.

These are the kinds of imaginitive things that happen when food waste is reframed by a holistic environmental and social justice perspective.

Now, how to apply my five-point checklist as a marking scheme for Just Eat It? I’d give straight As for style, composition, structure and class presentation, although I don’t think I can give it better than a B for evidence or analysis. Does that average out to a B+ or A-?

I’m not going to waste my time on that.

Wayne Roberts is a visiting scholar at New College, and recently taught Canada’s first senior seminar on research methods in food security at New College. He is the author of Food for City Building: A Field Guide for Planners, Actionists and Entrepreneurs.