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Waste not: food documentaries, recycled

“Wasted” is an upcoming Huntington Library event that costs nearly $100 for members. They’ll be showing the 2017 Rockefeller Foundation-sponsored food waste/ecoresponsibility documentary of the same name (featuring executive producer Anthony Bourdain, with Dan Barber of Blue Hill, Danny Bowien, Mario Batali and various other chefly friends, though none of those guys are slated to show up in person at the event). Plus local/LA top chefs demonstrating gourmet-ish fun things to do with the parts of vegetables and herbs we normally throw away. A lot of them seem to involve cocktails.

I couldn’t quite put my finger on why that rang hollow, or at least kind of shallow. Much as I love the Huntington, I’m not going to be blowing a hundred bucks any day soon just to screen a Netflix doc from last year at a posh drinks event. I’m not a hipster, I’m barely capable of a glass of wine, so hard drinks are out, and my kid is heading off to college on the other coast in the fall, so I’m feeling poor-ish in anticipation.  But I was kind of curious to see what was in the film.

I went online and then to my local film-heavy libraries (this is the LA metro area) to see if I could screen Wasted in full for free. I tend to be crabby and skeptical of anything glib, or as Bourdain puts it, “smug.” But I was prepared to find something worthwhile in it–I enjoyed Kitchen Confidential when it came out. As much as I pick on him for gonzo style, I have liked various of Bourdain’s interviews and essays since for their attempt at consciousness-raising on life and food availability issues in other countries.

The issues raised in the movie itself are pretty serious: America discards about 40 percent of its total food production, 160-plus billion dollars a year worth, into landfills (and generating a lot of methane gas through anaerobic breakdown, which apparently doesn’t occur if you compost properly). At the same time, nearly 1/7th of the people in this country have food insecurity–they go hungry. And the causes aren’t even buying a head of broccoli with best intentions and letting it sit in the vegetable bin for too long. They’re mostly issues of transportation cost, supermarket dumping past the sell-by dates, fear of lawsuits if the food’s donated instead, and imperfect-looking produce. It’s a national shame. Shots of poverty around the world, a claim, possibly justified, linking our waste of grain products in America and Europe to shortages in India and elsewhere, literally taking food out of their mouths. So far, picturesque and righteously thought-provoking.

The film’s positive side also starts out promisingly enough: a Greek yogurt processing plant in Tennessee diverts the excess whey, which is full of sugars, to a fermentation vat where it produces methane gas in a closed-loop system. The methane generated powers the entire production line. Clever, frugal, reasonably clean energy, at least in this controlled context, keeps some of the waste out of the municipal wastewater, and it’s about Greek yogurt.

Leftover and discarded sandwich bread–an awful lot of it, primarily end pieces from loaves used in sandwich-packaging factories–is being reclaimed and used creatively in the UK as the base grain for “Toast” ale and a similar beer (perhaps the same brand?) is now available in the US at Whole Foods stores (of course). We quickly sense a theme here.

In fact, Wasted’s approach to a dirty and complicated topic is surprisingly clean-hands compared with most other films and books that address food waste and hunger.

The live coverage and interviews are shot in-studio, in the restaurants, in the high-level, high-tech, high-ideals startups. A lot of footage is devoted to what great, cool and innovative things you can do for high-end, gourmet niche products if you’re creative with vegetable trimmings and give the less-familiar “garbage” fish a fancy Latin name and a place on your menu alongside the tuna steaks and branzino.

The global poverty and waste discussions you expect to give the film its depth are nearly all voice-overs (mostly Bourdain’s) with statistics, animations, and quick flashes of exotic scenery for illustration. These are things you don’t notice right away, perhaps not until afterward. But this divide starts to explain why I felt such a disconnect between the supposed message and the actual focal points of the film.

For example, reclaimed food discards or “culls” are rerouted from supermarkets to food pantries under special arrangements that in fact are all too rare, despite the positive depiction in the film. Donald Rausch, former president of Trader Joe’s, explains the concept of one of his current projects, to take sell-by-date culls of fresh produce and other commodities that are still perfectly good, and stock a lower-priced grocery for inner city families in an otherwise food desert. This is an important improvement in the lives of the customers, who are working-class and struggling, and they appreciate it. But they’re not desperate or underfed. They have a home and pay for their groceries; it’s not a food bank or soup kitchen.

You never really see homeless Americans in the film, other than a single tent city shot from a distance, despite the actual upsurge in homelessness over the past couple of decades. You really never confront the harsh side of poverty and what to do about it, and you never really meet the desperately poor or hungry. We get one quick soundbite about legal and policy analysis in-studio from one of the food waste activist/experts–more about him in a bit–and move on.

The film skips right to the next lower level of responsible food redistribution on the EPA’s inverted triangle diagram: animal feed. Japan has a number of innovative startups that produce acceptable pig feed from human food waste–they grind up the stuff in a factory, heat and acidify it to kill harmful microbes, and pipe it direct-to-farmer into pig troughs instead of the conventional corn and soy feed. It’s not enough for mass-market pig farms but good for boutique production. Varying the slops intentionally varies the flavor profile of the pork, which intrigues Danny Bowien in Japan and the ecoresponsibility talking heads back in the studio, and then there’s a quick sidetrip to the Hudson Valley and Dan Barber’s Stone Barns and Blue Hill restaurants to hear Barber explain how some of the world’s most gourmet ham is produced similarly (photographs of said ham being shaved lovingly over several very expensive dishes).

So it’s all very high-end, classy, and sanitized. The food discussed in any specificity is all in the context of high-end restaurants–the Serrano ham, how delicious the so-called “garbage fishes” are (a conversation between Mario Batali and one of his colleagues). This is not where most of us really live.

You don’t get some of the most important practical arguments about what to do to shift current marketing and shipping and legislative conditions in the right direction to end massive causes of food waste and just as importantly, end hunger. The spokesmen and -women filmed in Wasted are either popular TV and food mag star chefs or else youngish, attractive talking heads eagerly delivering–mostly repeating–official statistics and general trends they probably did not research and compile themselves. Somehow it’s all very Portlandia.

However, Wasted is far from the only food documentary of the past 20 years to cover food waste, and its creators don’t adequately acknowledge or build on or perhaps even know about food docs that have gone before. There are two better ones I want to point you to.

A stroll down the library DVD aisle (while waiting for the copy of Wasted you’ve put on hold) can snag you Just Eat It, a Canadian doc from 2015 that shows up high in the Google searches, but also another slightly older and funkier gem from a master of the French New Wave. I’ll save that one for last. Back to Just Eat It and Wasted.

Just Eat It is based on a couple’s 6-month personal experiment of living exclusively on discarded food and documenting food waste in Canada. Much like Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me, filmmaker Grant Baldwin and writer/producer Jen Rustemeyer catalog their personal experience and reactions as they learn where to look for discards, brave the humiliation of dumpster-diving and negotiating visits to family during the experiment, talk to their friends, film themselves and each other, figure out what to do with the food they can get, and deal with the shock of seeing first-hand how much stuff gets dumped and sent to landfills each week instead of being donated to food banks.

Partway through the six months, they realize they can’t use everything they foraged or even keep up with their tracking spreadsheet, and they eventually call in friends to “shop” their kitchen. It’s exhilarating–they’re thriving, and some of the food is very high-end–but it’s exhausting too and not usually a balanced haul. It’s also disheartening and disturbing, and they look for experts and activists to put things in a national and global context and figure out some solutions.

This film, co-written with food waste activist Jonathan Bloom (one of the on-film commentators and author of American Wasteland), was sponsored by a Canadian government education program, went viral and got great reviews, and spun off classroom materials and programming for school children.

I watched Just Eat It first, so I kind of jumped when I popped Wasted into the DVD player right afterward and recognized some of the shots.

What’s a nice little independent-that-could like Just Eat It doing lending footage only a year or so later to a big glossy high-profile competitor like Wasted? Were they acquired? Ripped off? Something in between?

It turns out that the directors of Wasted, Nari Kye and Anna Chai, who work on Anthony Bourdain’s TV shows, do know about Just Eat It. The end credits list it under “Stills and Stock Footage.” Whew, right? No–or at least, I’m not sure. I mean, it’s lumped in with Getty Images and Shutterstock.

Stills and stock footage? This is a frankly disingenuous (is that an oxymoron?) use of that credit. It implies that the footage they took from Just Eat It was minimal, just some stock footage of a field, a landfill, a dumpster filled with supermarket culls. And that therefore the influence and borrowing of ideas and motifs is also miniscule and incidental. It isn’t.

Wasted looks so fresh, so complete, so innovative–the DVD includes interviews with the graphic designers who styled the EPA inverted food waste reduction priorities pyramid in five steps: redistribution to people, then animals, generating energy, composting, and last, when nothing else can be done, landfill. They have young, hip activists talking global and national stats, they have Anthony Bourdain himself sitting in a chair on whitescreen talking in soundbites like “Use everything, waste nothing.” Stylish.

But…do the side-by-side with Just Eat It and you realize what Kye and Chai (and Bourdain, and the Rockefeller Institute) borrowed. It’s a lot. Whatever they paid Baldwin and Rustemeyer for licensing the individual film footage cuts from JEI, they actually seem to have gone a lot further, up to reproducing whole scenes and structural elements–and didn’t acknowledge it.

But even the stock footage is used in a misleading way. The Just Eat It footage pops up between restaurant segments and during key voiceovers about the impact of food waste. It lends Wasted much of its appearance of ecoresponsibility and gravitas, but it’s stock footage, not original.

One might argue that it’s a small independent film and the directors couldn’t be everywhere, and using stock footage is a common way to provide affordable illustration for the rest. But in Wasted they have the money (Rockefeller backing) and the film crews to go to Japan and Korea and Italy for live segments. That’s much farther than Baldwin’s crew were able to travel.

That scene of the giant landfill and some farmworkers sweating it out in the field next to a harvester–both of these were longer in Just Eat It and included interviews with the people themselvesThat telling snapshot of a trail of celery stalks discarded along the furrow of a big field originally included an interview with the bulk produce farmer. He looked pretty disgusted as he explained why he leaves so much in the field–he has to trim each head short to fit the commercial plastic bags for supermarket packagers, discard outer stalks to get “celery hearts” that earn more money per pound, and he can’t afford to do anything else with the trimmings. No one will buy it, it’s too far from a city to get gleaners and he can’t afford to ship it where it might be useful.

This is far from Wasted‘s loving portrayal of Dan Barber’s boutique organic potager that sources his high-end restaurants and cooking experiments with zucchini vine stems and lettuce stumps arranged artfully on plates. You get a lot more insight on what makes American waste so massive and pervasive.

Third stock shot: Used as a quick transition are one or two eye-popping shots of a dumpster behind a supermarket filled to the brim with discarded turkey breasts–thousands of them. This was the first thing I recognized from having just watched Just Eat It minutes before Wasted, and it’s the only real dumpster shot closeup in the film. Implication: Kye and Chai never got their own hands dirty by researching or shooting any of their own dumpster dive footage.

The stills and stock footage are at least (presumably) paid for and credited onscreen. The ideas and motifs they borrowed–even a couple of lines–they present as their own.

First and most obviously, the use of the EPA inverted triangle for food use priorities as a themed divider between segments. It serves as a structural outline of sorts, the kind of thing you go back to every couple of slides in a PowerPoint slideshow to tell your audience what step you’re on now and give them a sense of the throughline.  Wasted spends time and money on stopmotion graphics design to dress it up, but Just Eat It used it first and used it more coherently.

Second, scenes and examples of innovation: notably, the use of restaurant food waste to feed pigs. Wasted found a high-tech example of this in Japan, presented it as all-new and something that isn’t being done in the US. They filmed Danny Bowien on location talking with the farmers and getting to pipe the processed slops into the hog trough himself before heading off to a restaurant to sample the goods. Innovative, cutting-edge, gourmet–remember the bit about the tailored flavor profiles.

But recycling restaurant food waste for hogs has been done in the US–Just Eat It got there first as well, interviewing a hog farmer and his wife just outside Las Vegas. The interview is more complete, more personal, more insightful about the economic pressures on independent farmers and the effort it takes to do it when there’s no shiny innovative hog-feed processor to gather the slops and process them for you and you’re already in your 70s and don’t have a next generation to take over and let you retire.

Third–Tristram Stuart, the (young, slim, educated, British, upwardly mobile, earnest, and–of course?–pretty on camera) guy who gets a lot of the food waste activism cred and prime talking points in Wasted. He looks good, he sounds insightful, he’s going places, he’s innovative. Turns out that he too has been recycled from his appearances in Just Eat It. Nye and Chai don’t take cuts of his interview segments from the earlier film. They film him–more nattily dressed–touring the Toast Ale brewery and in the pubs raising a glass with other bright young Brits…doing right by drinking right.

In Just Eat It, he was talking more in depth, and more of what he said was based on his own work as an activist. In Wasted, he’s there as a personality. In other words, eye candy–I’m being very ungenerous here, and also blunt–and perhaps also as ear-candy. He has an elegant-sounding voice and much of what he’s doing is reiterating official stats in a way that serves as voiceovers for some of the pretty pictures (the fish-trawling footage, for example, from another source).

OK, he’s allowed to be in two food waste films. He’s allowed to be young and shiny. He’s allowed to let people repackage him from functional activist to being-groomed-for-potential-TV-host.

But it’s the talking points.

They put one of Jonathan Bloom’s key observations from Just Eat It in Stuart’s mouth as if it were his own finding. Kye and Chai didn’t pick up on what was wrong with that even though they would have to have seen JEI or at least had an assistant do so for the stock footage research…mmmmph. Not entirely sure what’s going on or who to blame for this one.

This is the problem with talking-heads documentaries; unless you do some legwork you don’t know whether they’re representing their own work, public government statistics, someone else’s research or what. And it all goes by too quickly and smoothly to catch everything the first time around. Most critics won’t.

Bloom is an activist about Stuart’s age; American and sort of academic/nerdy-looking, not sleek. He has strong observations and a head for in-depth research and reporting, does his own legwork. He was Baldwin and Rustemeyer’s cowriter for JEI as well as one of its talking heads, and you can trace much of the film’s depth of feeling back to his work. In a late segment of that film he decides that writing books and commentary isn’t enough anymore, so he volunteers for the first time with a group of gleaners to harvest leftover sweet potatoes for a local North Carolina food pantry. That’s one of the more moving segments of the film; he discovers just how backbreaking it is to dig potatoes by hand, and yet the food bank recipients and manager are appreciative when he gets there and hauls in so many bags.

The point that got recycled by Stuart was this: that to his knowledge (Bloom’s, originally), no legal case had ever been brought against a supermarket or anyone else in the US for illnesses due to food donated to the poor in good faith. It should be suspect when Stuart says it, since he’s active mostly in the UK, not the US, but we don’t realize it’s not his research behind it unless we see JEI before Wasted.

I looked online at Baldwin’s JEI site and Bloom’s author blog, and can’t find that either of them objected. In fact, none of the reviewers I can find online seem to have noticed or complained.  (Until now, but then again, you expect me to complain). Perhaps they got paid something additional for that kind of intellectual borrowing too, but credit is at least as important as payment in this context. Bourdain is a star, the Rockefeller Institution is immensely well-heeled and high-profile, and the market is much, much bigger than Canada. Baldwin and Bloom created a lot of the intellectual content that Wasted cribbed from, did unglamorous but critical legwork and went places Wasted only pretends to go.

And both of these films are descendents of yet a third, perhaps the best of its genre and almost 20 years ahead of either one.

Les glaneurs et la glaneuse (The Gleaners and I, 1999; 2001 English subtitled version) is a French food waste documentary by none other than Agnès Varda, who directed Vagabond and Cleo from 5 to 7 back in the heyday of the French New Wave. This one, about the ancient and current practice of gleaning in France, is not only more artistic than Wasted and Just Eat It, it’s not afraid to get down and dirty and show rather than tell.

We see village families and unemployed people living at the fringes in campers, both groups scavenging all the misshapen potatoes left by farmers in huge discard piles at the edge of the field, where they’ll green to toxicity if left for long. The ability to glean–and the legal permission given to gleaners after the official harvest–are important rights in France, now as much as in the 1800s, but they’re being threatened in modern times.

We see supermarkets dumping perfectly good cheeses and meats–and homeless people in the cities fishing around in the bins afterward for items that are not always wrapped–raw chickens, dozens of them, there for the taking if you don’t mind hauling out the raw meat by hand, rinsing it off and finding someone in the homeless camps with a makeshift stove to cook it over.

After the weekly open-air market closes, we find people scavenging the abandoned last boxes of unsold vegetables. One of them walks  back to his room in a city homeless shelter and tells Varda, as he munches some unwashed parsley from a bunch he’s picked up from the sidewalk, that he has a master’s degree but is still unemployed, and that parsley contains vitamins and minerals he can’t get otherwise.

Varda regards herself as a glaneuse, a gleaner of stories and people and scenes and moments. Rather than sitting sterilely back and letting experts deliver tidy global statistics on the scope of food waste from a studio office set, she dives in with her subjects where they live, following them in the fields or alleyways and getting them talking as she takes in the scene.

There are somewhat coy moments of filming herself ruefully–her dyed hair with the white roots showing, the wrinkles that have accumulated on her hands and forearms over the years. She’s trading a little on her status as one of the influential New Wave filmmakers and photographers of the 1950s and 1960s. Yet the moments of purposeful coyness and even kookiness bring with them the sense of someone real and empathetic, enthusiastic, with a specific point of view.

Varda goes and talks to all sorts of people herself, eager to find out why they glean and what it really means for them today. She is not afraid to go and interview and film vagrants outside the depressed industrial town of Amiens, and she visits the makeshift hovels of homeless men in the bigger cities. She talks to villagers who have always gleaned, immigrant families with few other resources to feed their children, truck drivers who talk about the waste and loss from the food they ship to the cities, the regulations and costs and catch-22s that prevent them from doing better by the poor and the public in general.

She is also not afraid to interview vineyard owners in Beaune and  supermarket managers who shut gleaners out for shallow reasons in the face of obvious need. She gets most of them to talk to her on camera despite how badly they’re going to be shown up in the film. Perhaps some of them agreed to interviews because she’s Agnès Varda and therefore a status symbol, as well as rather charming–like being interviewed by Dan Rather or Michael Palin.

However it is, it’s been nearly 20 years since Varda managed to cut to the heart of food waste in a way that Bourdain and Co. just don’t. It’s not that Varda didn’t have all the latest statistics and policy issues at hand–she did mention them, she just didn’t think they were more interesting than the people they represented (or whom public policy failed). As a result, Les glaneurs is a much more personal film and ends up being more effective. Check it out of your library or buy it on Amazon–you can probably also find a streaming service that carries it. And more recently Varda has been interviewed about this film and her approach to filming in general. Some of the interviews on YouTube are in English.

 

 

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