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“We are feeding our landfills as much as we are feeding our country.”

October 20, 2011

This post originally appeared on the Our Kitchen Table website.

On Monday Oct. 17, Grand Valley State University screened the documentary film Dive! Living Off America’s Waste as part of its Sustainability Week activities. The film opens with a group of young adults helping themselves to gourmet cheeses, choice meat cuts, organic produce and brown eggs from their local Trader Joe’s dumpster. One dumpster diver quipped, “We have so much food that it’s a chore to take care of it the next day.”

Timmy Vatterott of the film DIVE! talks to OKT's Yvonne Woodard about her work before the film

In fact, with the help of a donated chest freezer, one family featured was able to amass enough meat to last a year within one week of dumpster diving.

The documentary goes on to illustrate just how much food is wasted by the current agriculture and food distribution systems. Here are some fast facts shared during the film:

  • Food makes up 20% of landfill waste.
  • 50% of food harvested never makes it into anyone’s stomach
  • 96 billion pounds of food is wasted in the US annually… enough to fill 453,257 box cars (a train that would stretch from LA to New York City and back again).
  • The US wastes 40 million acres of wheat every year – enough wheat to cover the whole state of Oklahoma.
  • The food wasted in the US could feed all of Haiti for five years
  • 35.5 million people in the US don’t know where their next meals coming from. 11 million are hungry. They simply aren’t going to eat today.

The film narrates the tale of the dumpster divers’ efforts to get Trader Joe’s to donate edible food waste to local food pantries. After Trader Joe’s refuses to engage in conversation about the matter, the dumpster divers organize to deliver truckloads of dumpstered food to a very appreciative LA food pantry on New Year’s Eve.

While Trader Joe’s and other chain supermarkets do donate some “waste” foods to food pantries, it seems these items are usually breads or packaged dry goods that are simply past their stamped expiration dates. Most produce, meat, eggs and the other nutritious components of a healthy diet are simply trashed. Reasons cited were logistics and cost.

Our current system of food delivery lives for profits, not people – wasting food is simply more profitable than feeding the hungry. One of the dumpster divers in the film made the astute observation, “We weren’t always like this. There was a time when food was much more than a commodity. Food was life itself. Food was community.”

In conclusion, the film asks its audience to join its Eat Trash Campaign, a project aimed at convincing more supermarkets to donate edible foods to pantries rather than dumping them.

When Vatterott heard Grand Rapids prohibited laying hens, he exclaimed, "There's an ordinance against chickens here? Down with the chicken laws!"

Panel reacts
After the film, two women form Our Kitchen Table, executive director Lisa Oliver King and evaluater Inez Adams were part of a panel that discussed the film. The panel also included Elianna Bootzin of Feeding America West Michigan,Emma Rosauer of Access of West Michigan and Timothy Vatterott, Dive’s producer and composer. Cynthia Price, the panel moderator, asked the panel about their reactions to the film and their thoughts on our “insane, corporate controlled food system.”

Rosauer shared that the film resonated with her and her agency’s work, especially these days in West Michigan when more and more families are turning to food pantries to stave off hunger. She shared that one in four Kent County children experiences hunger,  ”People who used to give to food pantries now they are receiving from them.”

Good Samaritan legislation initiated under the Clinton administration legally protects businesses that donate food, but that many in the food industry are not aware of the legislation. Rosauer made a call out for volunteers to build relationships with their local grocer and arrange pick up and distribution of dumpster-destined food to local food pantries.

Bootzin explained the work of Feeding America and went on to say that the amount of food waste is increasing, raising from 30% in 1974 to 40% 2009.

In her reaction to the film, Inez Adams, OKT, commented, “The movie said we don’t value food. I think we do value it but we value it as a commodity and not as a right. Lots of Americans think only certain people are entitled to food. ‘They don’t have a job so they don’t deserve food.’ ‘I work hard so I can feed my family.’ The discussion needs to change from ‘food is an entitlement if you are a productive citizen’ to food is a human right.”

Lisa Oliver King talked about OKT’s work in providing resources to people who wanted to build their own food system and food security through growing and sharing food and foraging within their own neighborhoods.  She encouraged the audience to approach the city and demand that fruit and nut trees be planted ion the parks and greenways.

“We are talking about preserving nature so that it not only pleases us aesthetically but provides for us nutritionally,” she said.  She also asked, “How do people define hunger?” Much emphasis is put on feeding belies rather than preventing malnutrition through providing people nutritious foods. “ People in Grand Rapids have access to food pantries that provide substandard, high calorie, high fat, high sugar, high sodium and nutrient deficient food.”

Oliver King also mentioned the media-driven mindset that makes people crave meat at every meal when a vegetable and grain based diet could feed them just as adequately, at a lower cost and with less impact upon the environment. She called for citizens to demand local policy changes that would not only encourage sharing dumpster-destined foods but also make it easier for people to grow their own food, compost food scraps and keep laying hens.

Vatterott agreed heartily. “That really empowers people to understand where food comes from. That places a value on it and strengthens community bonds,” he said. “I really admire the work you do. That kinds of thing really needs to happen, people taking ownership of their food.”

In all, the message of the film Dive! and the campaign that it promotes are good steps towards recognizing the prevalence of food waste here in the US and in other wealthy nations. However, there was no critical conversation about the economic system that perpetuates this kind of waste and injustice—the same economic system that fails working class and lower class people when it comes to health care, housing, education and in the courts.

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