“Wasting Away in the USA”
A Review of
By Jonathan Bloom
A Documentary by Jeremy Seifert.
Reviewed by Chase Roden.
A Documentary by Jeifert Seifert.
Available through the website: www.divethefilm.com
Jeremy Seifert wants you to eat trash. Jonathan Bloom just wants you to stop throwing food away.
In the wealthiest country in the world, while tens of millions of Americans don’t get enough to eat or know how they’re going to get their next meal, we throw away 11 million pounds of food an hour. While people suffer malnutrition or even starve, half of the food grown or purchased in America is thrown out, uneaten.
Seifert and Bloom independently take on food waste in two recent works, approaching the topic from surprisingly different perspectives. Where Jonathan Bloom’s book American Wasteland focuses on waste in the production, sale, and disposal of food, Jeremy Seifert’s documentary Dive starts with dumpster diving — the reclaiming of edible food from the trash cans of grocery stores — and moves to broader questions about American society. The problem as Seifert and Bloom both identify it is not simply one of hunger in a land of waste, but also of the massive environmental impact of food rotting in landfills.
Jonathan Bloom’s career as a freelance journalist shows in his far-ranging fieldwork and tendency to use examples of individuals and institutions to make his case against waste. Starting on a factory farm in Salinas, CA and going wherever the story takes him — school cafeterias, landfills, nursing homes, high-tech waste facilities in the UK — Bloom is dedicated to uncovering and understanding waste wherever it occurs. He even takes a job in the produce section of a Durham, NC grocery store for several months in order to witness the industry first-hand. The stories Bloom uncovers are treated fairly and with a positive outlook, with the stories of people working against wastefulness alongside accounts of profligacy.
This even-handedness and dedication are American Wasteland’s best attributes. When Bloom describes multiple daily truckloads of fresh cucumbers being dumped to rot in a field or truckers forced to trash entire shipments of fruit due to a failed inspection on a single box, it’s not just a statistic but part of a story of individuals and the systems they participate in. The author hears his stories directly from their sources, never vilifying his subjects, but instead trying to get at their reasons for doing what they do whether he agrees with their motives or not.
Although the tone of American Wasteland is folksy and often jocular, Bloom is single-minded in his attention to food waste. The author delves deeply into a huge topic; because of this, he doesn’t have a chance to synthesize many of his findings, which can sometimes be frustrating. Where readers may suspect numerous systemic forces behind food waste — income inequality, the separation between shoppers and food producers, consumer culture — Bloom generally chooses not to reflect on deeper causes. As such, Pollanites, locavores, and other gourmets may find Bloom’s focus shortsighted. Bloom’s fieldwork and research repeatedly raise these groups’ concerns about the deficiencies of America’s food distribution and marketing systems, but the journalist instead concentrates on details he can directly observe and verify.
In a way, Bloom’s empirical focus is refreshing; there are plenty of people with dubious credentials writing about “big” issues they’ve never done unbiased first-hand research on. But this same focus also tends to make Bloom come off as a technocrat, finding technological solutions to all sorts of waste-related problems. He looks forward to a day when fruit is picked by robots, RFID tags help grocers know when food is nearing expiration, and anaerobic digesters in waste processing plants turn discarded food into biodegradable mush without the production of methane. Although Bloom writes about the ethical necessity of avoiding waste early on, pointing to teachings on the topic from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam alike, he seems to see the solution to these lapses of ethics in the application of high technology. In his final chapter, Bloom does say what he would do if he could change America’s laws at will, pointing to the possibility of legal regulation of food waste, as well as offering some practical tips on improving one’s personal food habits to reduce waste — but after nearly 300 pages of anecdotes and facts without significant analysis, it seems tacked-on.
Jeremy Seifert begins his film on food waste at the opposite side of the system — in a dumpster outside a Trader Joe’s grocery in Los Angeles. Dive follows Seifert and his dumpster-diving compatriots from dumpster to dumpster at first — recovering literally thousands of pounds of unexpired meats, cheeses, bread, and other foods — and then, eventually, on a mission to figure out how to make something good out of this obscene waste of food.
Combining atmospheric scenes shot on grainy film stock with sometimes painfully crisp digital footage, alongside fantastic hand-drawn info-graphic sequences and stop motion montages, the film is an eclectic mix of beautiful and ugly that gives it a true sense of location. Although food waste is present in every American city, Seifert’s film is clearly out of Los Angeles, and even from a particular LA subculture. This specificity does not alienate the viewer, however; the exploits of Seifert’s gang are somehow inviting, despite the fact that they’re literally eating other peoples’ trash.
Where Bloom is reluctant to make sweeping claims about the causes of food waste, Seifert, a graduate of Fuller Seminary, dives right in; one scene shows a dumpster diver holding up a carton of eggs and mock-dramatically proclaiming himself to be “living off the waste of the consumerism of America.” Even this somewhat overstated sentiment is hard to deny in light of the sheer excess of waste Seifert uncovers in Dive.
Moving from living off dumpsters to finding out why they’re filled with edible food in the first place, Seifert attempts to confront Trader Joe’s about their wastefulness, and whether they couldn’t be donating their “excess” food to charity instead of sending it to rot in a landfill. Seifert finds himself completely shut out of conversation with the grocery chain, who refuse his seemingly polite requests to speak to anyone on camera. In fact, Trader Joe’s will rarely speak to him off-camera either, and when they do their communications seem to be either deceptive or deluded about their actual practices.
These interactions illustrate one of the most enlightening lessons of Dive — namely that carefully-crafted corporate images and brand identities can be highly deceptive. In Southern California and beyond, Trader Joe’s is favored by gourmets and conscientious eaters due to their selection of organic, preservative-free, and hypoallergenic foods. In other words, the people most likely to care about food waste are TJ’s core market. And yet Trader Joe’s comes off looking very bad in this film; despite assurances that they are donating food to charity, Seifert and friends continue to find massive quantities of high-quality food in their dumpsters. On one occasion, the filmmaker arranges donations from several Trader Joe’s locations for Christmas meals at a Salvation Army shelter, netting a truck full of fresh food. One store declines, however, stating that they’re already donating the food to another charity. Seifert later finds in that store’s dumpster several industrial-sized bags of poly-wrapped, vacuum-sealed, free range organic broiler chickens with three days left before their “sell by” date.
The focus of the film, though, is not to make Trader Joe’s or any other grocery store look bad (despite the stores’ best efforts). Seifert goes on to interview academics, nonprofit directors working with food charities, dumpster divers, and other people working against food waste in LA to get a true idea of what can be done to get food from those who would waste it to those who need it. As in Bloom’s book, the message of Dive is ultimately positive; despite the unsustainability of the current situation, making local changes is not all that difficult — people just have to care.
Both Dive and American Wasteland are now associated with burgeoning movements against waste and toward sustainability. Seifert uses his film’s website (www.divethefilm.com) and Bloom his book’s site and blog (www.wastedfood.com) to inform and to some extent organize like-minded individuals. This kind of action will hopefully be these works’ true impact — both Seifert and Bloom are truly concerned with food waste, and see solving that problem as a key toward solving problems of hunger and environmental degradation. Either work is well-suited to group study in a church or community setting.