Who’d have thought that a documentary about scavenging would serve up so much food porn? In their hugely entertaining “Just Eat It,” Canadian filmmaking couple Grant Baldwin and Jenny Rustemeyer conduct an experiment to eat only discarded food for six months, highlighting an environmental crisis evidently fed by wasteful North American eating habits, but in a cheeky, accessible way. The cornucopia they discover inside dumpsters will leave audiences gobsmacked, and will have them mopping up their dinner plates with renewed vigor. Comparisons with “Super Size Me” are inevitable, and with savvy marketing, the filmmakers may have an small international sleeper on their hands.
When it comes to fostering environmental awareness, the Vancouver-based Baldwin (who directed) and Rustemeyer (who produced) indeed practice what they preach. In their first docu, “The Clean Bin Project” (2010), they pointed out the need for waste reduction by trying to buy nothing and produce almost no trash for one year. The challenge in their sophomore feature requires them to survive for six months on discarded food alone, excepting meals served by family or friends. The hilarious freeloading exploits that ensue are accompanied by field trips and interviews that present a bigger picture of the issue.
On Day 1, the two are off to a good start, as they’re invited by Baldwin’s brother to clear out his fridge before he moves home. Next, they buy unsellable items from a farmer’s market, such as a phallically bulbous zucchini or a bunch of chard left on display. This leads to a discussion of the prevailing consumer obsession with the “aesthetic appeal”of merchandise, as evidenced by an American peach-packing plant, where sorting standards seem on par with those of a beauty contest.
One month later, the filmmakers are reduced to rummaging through bins in people’s backyards, causing Baldwin to shed tears of humiliation that will melt many a viewer’s heart. Things turn around when they decide to look “further up the supply chain,” on the outskirts of Vancouver, where they discover mounds of granola and other perfectly edible foodstuffs. Thus begins a dumpster cruise that leads them to a bin “the size of a small swimming pool,” filled to the brim with hummus; a bumper crop from a culinary photo shoot; and an attempt to unload cartons of artisanal chocolate on Halloween.
It’s exciting to follow the duo on their treasure hunt, and to see all the organic/free-range/pro-biotic goodies they bring home. Hopefully, audiences will also register the implications of their findings: Beyond what they’ve salvaged, tons more food is destined for the landfill. The film devotes considerable screentime to several environmentalists, including food/agriculture scientist Dana Gunders and authors Jonathan Bloom and Tristram Stuart, who offer up statistics such as the fact that 40% of the food produced in North America never gets eaten. Baldwin’s snappy editing consigns the talking heads to numerous short segments, keeping the film from bogging down with data.
Its scope stretching from British Columbia to North Carolina and other parts of the U.S., “Just Eat It” looks to individuals and organizations for sustainability strategies. The highlight is Nevada’s biggest food-scrap recycling farm, where 8% of unwanted grub from nearby Las Vegas gets devoured by 2,500 pigs, raised by owners Bob and Janet Combs, whose salt-of-the-earth values put contempo consumerism to shame.
Given the magnitude of the subject, the film barely scratches the surface; for example, the question of how restaurants and caterers squander ingredients is referred to only in passing. Nevertheless, Baldwin and Rustemeyer have drawn attention to an important, overlooked issue, and taught by example that a difference can be made, simply by tweaking rather than revolutionizing one’s lifestyle. It helps, too, that the documentary’s chatty reality-show tone renders Baldwin’s foibles and Rustemeyer’s infectious enthusiasm rather endearing.
Tech package is solid, and includes such playful touches as a stop-motion animated sequence covering the life cycle of a yellow pepper, shot over a year and wittily accompanied by Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me).” Baldwin’s lensing makes eye-catching use of extreme wide and flyover shots to convey the scope and character of the film’s natural and urban landscapes.