Seeking answers for what to do about the increasingly publicized food waste crisis, I recently attended a screening of the much-buzzed-about film “Just Eat It.” Hosted by Tammara Soma, food waste PhD candidate, in conjunction with the Toronto Food Policy Council, the event hosted a full-house for the show, followed by a panel discussion.
I won’t say a lot about the film, except to recommend it highly for its unique ability to appeal to and resonate with all ages and types. Alongside fabulous cinematography and hilarious central characters, viewers are provided a comprehensive understanding of the scope of the problem. But, the film also holds potential to overwhelm and foster uncertainty about how to affect change. For this reason, the subsequent question period was invaluable. For those who weren’t there, I want to share the empowering messages contained within that rich discussion.
Much Ado about Food Waste: The Discussion
Part A) Whose Job is it Anyway?
A core topic centred on individuals’ roles in addressing the behemoth crisis of food waste. It began with an invitation to the five panelists to comment on the film’s take-home message, voiced by Tristram Stuart. A celebrity food waste activist and prominent voice throughout the film, Stuart told viewers that addressing food waste “doesn’t require a complete revolution in the way we treat food. It’s just tweaking it slightly…and usually in delicious ways.”
Having just watched an hour’s worth of documentary data which indicated that this problem is multi-scalar, complex, tied up in politics, and embedded in capitalism, Stuart’s advice struck as a tad inadequate. Indeed, agreed the panelists almost unanimously: the problem of food waste is out of control. Rectifying it would require massive shifts, not a slight tweak. Luckily, panelist Dr. Wayne Roberts (with his uncanny ability to lend a balanced perspective when it’s most needed) pointed out how “easy it is to get stuck on a half-truth.” He said, “it is true that there are literally hundreds of things that people can do to prevent waste. And at the same time it is also true that you need to have a complete transformation or revolution in the way that food is treated. They are both equally half-truths.”
And so, the audience and panelists talked through the various ways of moving forward, attempting to work out the frustrating puzzle of roles and responsibilities in ameliorating the food waste challenge—and gains were made!
Part B) I’m too Small in the Whole Scheme of Things!
The confusion over the need for consumer-driven versus politically-mandated change came up repeatedly. More specifically, consumers are blamed, but feel their actions are constrained by the system. For example, one woman protested that consumers are frequently blamed for “demanding a product that looks a certain way.” But, she argued, “that’s only what’s provided to us! I would gladly take an ugly vegetable! How do we make that change?” In a similar vein, PhD student Isabel Urrita reasoned that this film is not the only arena that emphasizes the consumer’s responsibility for food waste, saying that in academia as well, “a lot of research has been geared toward blaming the consumer….but I think [researchers] sidestep the issue that a lot of individual behaviours are shaped by foodscapes that are shaped by more powerful actors.” Master’s candidate Maya Fromstein summarized a tension wherein “this whole issue of food waste keeps talking about the consumer [when in fact] it’s more of an issue with the system!” A continued focus on consumers to change habits does not meaningfully fix the system because consumers comprise just one point in the chain. These are legitimate arguments, but, if 51% of total food waste occurs at the household level, consumers must own up to the problem, contended panelist Hélène St. Jacques.
Much to do about Food Waste: The Solutions
Starting from the ground and moving up to structural change, panelists offered an array of tools for repairing the broken food system. Panelist Michelle Coyne from Second Harvest pointed out that effective consumer-level changes need not be challenging. The best thing to do is “eat food. Any solution to food waste is going take many approaches but quite simply, we need to eat the food we produce!”
But the audience despaired in the scope of the problem that lay beyond their control as eaters. So panelists provided advice for making steps toward affecting systems-level change. For example, panelist Jamie Reaume reasoned that “most people don’t care.” He stressed the importance of building passion in others. “Just Eat It” does a terrific job of educating. It is individuals’ job then, to create a stronger social movement around food waste beyond the auditorium doors. Highlighting the youthful energy in the room, and drawing on the example of the local food movement (once a counterculture but now taken up by major retailers, leaders, and even legislated in Ontario), he said that consumers must leverage their concern to build a unified movement capable of affecting structural change.
To provide a way of doing this, Wayne Roberts offered first steps to influencing policy. He recommended collaborating to list the 10 most problematic laws which uphold a wasteful food system. Then “pick a few of them and defy them,” because “governments cannot withstand that scrutiny.” Adding to this, panelist Annette Synowiec reminded everyone that city councillors are the champions for their constituents: strong communication will see real results.
St. Jacques finished by illustrating that the broken system is a by-product of a generation that held assumptions of abundance. “But you are a new wave, you are thinking differently, you see the world more clearly,” she emphasized, pointing out that younger generations internalize the reality that the world comprises finite resources, so prioritize decisions differently.
We still disagree with Tristram Stuart’s claim that the system only needs “tweaking.” However, this forum provided us the toolkit to arm ourselves with the tools we are comfortable swinging while we reformat the system at various places in various ways. What we need is a revolution of the food system if we want to ameliorate food waste. However, this conversation helped us to recognize that the revolution is feasible through millions of tweaks at every level. That, I can act upon. What about you?
Let “Just Eat It” be the catalyst for unified action. Watch the film, talk about it, and please, pick up a tool before you walk out of that auditorium.
Here’s a start! Follow these guys on Twitter: