You can call the statistics stomach-churning: 40 percent of all food is wasted in the United States at a cost of a trillion dollars a year, one-third is wasted worldwide; 10 million tons of produce a year go unharvested in the U.S.; 90 percent of all wasted food ends up in landfills, where it can take up to 25 years for a head of lettuce to compost; the decomposing food in landfills release methane gas that contribute to pollution.
In the face of this relentless nihilism, it's quite an achievement that the new documentary “Wasted! The Story of Food Waste” is so darned entertaining and hopeful, as well as informative.
Part of what makes it so fun is that our guide is Anthony Bourdain, who narrates the film and is the executive producer. The film, directed by Anna Chai and Nari Kye, is a breezy, globe-hopping look at food systems, from farming to distribution to home consumption.
Also interviewed are several chefs who specialize in turning what would be normally wasted food (parts of animals, fish or vegetables that normally go unused) into delicacies. Their demonstrations not only serve as plugs for their restaurants, but might inspire ideas for home cooking.
“Using waste for flavor -- that's something chefs go crazy about,” says Danny Bowien, who started Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco.
Also in the film are noted chefs Dan Barber, Mario Batali and Massimo Bottura, as well as former Trader Joe's president Doug Rauch, who went on to create the non-profit supermarket chain Daily Table.
Most egregious of the food wasters are big supermarket chains, which toss out tons of perfectly good food daily because of rotating stock and egregious misuse of “best buy” dates. Nearly all of that food heads to landfills.
“Supermarket chains can literally end world hunger overnight,” says British food expert Tristram Stuart, who among his other pursuits, started Toast Ale, which uses perfectly good surplus bread as a main ingredient in brewing beer.
Daily Table's concept is to recover excess food that normally would by wasted by grocers and prices them to compete with fast food.
Other inspirations can be found in Japan, which converts much of it food waste into a probiotic eco-feed for livestock; South Korea, which has virtually eliminated household food waste and food waste in landfills; and Murfreesboro, Tenn., where General Mills' Yoplait Yogurt factory converts leftover whey into electricity that powers the plant.
Bourdain's message to the world: “It offends me when I see all of that good stuff thrown out. Why are you wasting that? That's good!”
Wasted! The Story of Food Waste
3 1/2 stars out of 4 stars Documentary. Directed by Anna Chai and Nari Kye. (Not rated. 90 minutes.)