Canada-based filmmakers Grant Baldwin and Jen Rustemeyer wanted to find out how much of that food is still good, and if they could eat it, so they came up with a challenge: to survive on food waste for six months.
"We went cold-turkey," they told NPR on a recent podcast. "We said we're going to consume only food that is destined for the trash or already in it. So we could pay for it, but we found that most places would not sell us dated food."
After six months of dumpster diving and searching behind wholesale warehouses, they managed to rescue over $20,000 worth of food — and spent a scant $200 on groceries.
To see how they did it, we checked out their documentary on the project, "Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story," which featured interviews with authors Tristram Stuart and Jonathan Bloom, and the Natural Resources Defense Council project scientist, Dana Gunders:
Baldwin and Rustemeyer hashed out the rules for the six month challenge over their "last supper": an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet.
1. They must eat only discarded food — anything expired or already wasted.
2. They could eat what friends and family serve, "to alleviate the stress of making everyone feel uncomfortable," Rustemeyer explained in "Just Eat It."
Most supermarkets wouldn't sell them dated food, so they often resorted to dumpsters. "We found 18-foot dumpsters all the time filled with food," they told NPR. "And the majority of that was because it was near the date label, but rarely past it."
The most food waste comes from households, in part because of the confusing nature of date labels.
There are 'sell by' and 'best by' dates on food products, and the customer should really only see the latter, explained Stuart: "The 'sell by' date shouldn't appear visibly. It should be encoded so that only staff understand it because it confuses people. They say 'display until,' customers see it, and they think, 'Oh, I can't eat it after that day.'"
"About 60% of consumers are throwing food away prematurely because they don't understand what the dates are telling them," explained Gunders.
As a result, in our households, we're wasting between 15% and 25% of the food that we're buying.
"That's expensive," said Gunders. "Imagine walking out of a grocery store with four bags of groceries, dropping one in the parking lot, and not bothering to pick it up. That's essentially what we're doing in our homes today."
Another big problem is that stores won't accept produce that doesn't look perfect — even if it's perfectly edible, if it grew abnormally, it will not be edible to the supermarket.
"I went to a banana plantation and after one day of harvest on a single plantation there was a truckload of bananas being wasted," explained Stuart. "And those were being wasted solely on the basis of cosmetic standards. The banana plantations grow bananas for European supermarkets. Supermarkets tell you what diameter, length, curvature — all of those parameters have to be exactly right."
In the first month alone, Baldwin and Rustemeyer brought home $1,127 worth of food.
"Even though we were trying to pay for it, we only ended up spending $33," said Rustemeyer. "It's a lot different than I thought," she reflected midway through the project. "I thought we'd really be scrounging for food ... The scale of the stuff we've seen so far is shocking, and I think we've only seen the littlest bit."
They struck gold one night when they found a dumpster "the size of a small swimming pool" completely filled with hummus.
"Initially, I thought it must have all gone bad," Baldwin said. "When I looked at it, it had three and a half weeks left on the 'best before' date. I took three or four home. You can only eat so much hummus. When we started the project, I expected to find some waste — and I really had prepared myself to see it — but when you're actually standing in front of something like that, it's totally different."
Another such bittersweet day came when Baldwin found $13,000 worth of organic chocolate bars.
They weren't expired, so he checked to see if they were recalled — they weren't. They also weren't past their "best by" date, so the only explanation he could think of for them being discarded was that the labels were strictly in English, and not also in Canada's second official language: French.
Come October 31, they became the most popular house on the block after handing out full-sized chocolate bars to trick-or-treaters.
With two months remaining in the challenge, Baldwin hopped on the scale. He had gained 10 pounds.
"I think it's a combination of more processed food, but also just stuffing myself when we've got copious amounts of one thing," he said. "The race is not trying to find food. It's trying to not waste it again."
"I'm pretty sure that people think that we're eating food scraps, scrapings off people's plates," said Rustemeyer. "When I tell them about the project, I just get this weird look. If they could see the quality of the food that we find and the amount — we've been eating pretty well."
Above is a snapshot of the many balanced and delicious meals they constructed out of food waste.
"It's been impossible to track how much we've found," explained Baldwin. "Often when we find a pile of food [in a dumpster], we're just looking at the top few inches — and it's eight feet deep, so we don't even know what's down there."
Towards the end of the project, their shelves were overflowing to the point where they had to invite friends to 'grocery shop' at their house.
"On the one hand, I'm happy, because we found food and it's really exciting," Rustemeyer explained. "And then on the other hand, I feel so guilty for even feeling excited, because it's such a shame that so much food is going to waste. It's really depressing, actually."
During the six months, Baldwin and Rustemeyer spent less than $200 on groceries (only products that were past date or would be pulled from the shelves) and rescued over $20,000 worth of food.
To celebrate the end of the project, the couple had 20 friends over for a 'food waste feast.'
The dinner menu, exclusively consisting of rescued food, included: cheese and crackers, chips and salsa, potato cod cakes, eggplant curry, saffron rice, carrot beet salad, apple crumble, and chocolate fondue.
"Of everything that I've learned through this project, my new sense of value for food is what's going to stick with me the most," reflected Baldwin. "I definitely won't miss having to go and search for food. That's going to be great, but I'm probably going to still have a peek from time to time. I mean, how can you not?"