Archive for the ‘food ethics’ Category

Film and Book Review: "The Gleaners and I" and "Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal"


Recently I watched a wonderful documentary by Agnes Varda entitled “The Gleaners and I” (or “Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse” in the original French). It is all about French gleaners, i.e. people who scavenge discarded food (and, sometimes, other things) from various places such as garbage bins, market stalls, and agricultural fields. Some of the gleaners glean simply as a means to save money or, in some cases, to avoid going hungry. Others do it for more ethical reasons – to avoid waste and/or to protest other people’s wastage of food. Some of these more ethical gleaners are what we would call freegans here in the U.S. Whatever their motivation may be, it is fascinating to watch the various gleaners scrounge up much of their sustenance from food that other people have thrown out for no good reason. I’m always fascinated by people who live against the grain, especially when they do so in ways that are more sustainable and eco-friendly than the ways in which the average person lives.


A day or two after I finished watching “The Gleaners…” I started reading “Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal” by Tristram Stuart. This book covers a little of the same territory as the film – Mr. Stuart is a freegan, and food gleaning is discussed in the book. However, the book is mainly about the ways in which food is wasted in the industrial nations, and the effect that this has upon impoverished people in the third world and elsewhere. Since food is traded globally according to the laws of supply and demand, wasted food increases demand (because people are buying or “demanding” more food than they need) and decreases supply (because a lot of the food that is grown is discarded by farmers and manufacturers before it even has the chance to be sold, or “supplied”). Increased demand and decreased supply leads to a higher price for food, which has the effect of pricing food out of the reach of many impoverished people who cannot grow their own food.

A truly stunning amount of food is wasted, perhaps as much as 50% of what is grown. Perfectly edible food is left to rot in farm fields because it is not perfectly shaped and unblemished, on the theory that picky grocery shoppers won’t buy it because it looks funny. (In Varda’s film she collects two-lobed, heart-shaped potatoes that are routinely discarded because they are not shaped like conventional potatoes). Food manufacturers waste a lot of food making their products. Grocery stores routinely order more produce and baked goods than they can sell before it goes bad. Restaurants entice customers with big portions that few people can eat all at once, and that many people do not bother to take home. “Best by” and “use by” dates greatly exaggerate how quickly food spoils, in order to avoid potential lawsuits. Most grocery shoppers buy more food than they can eat before it goes bad, and often throw out leftovers for no reason other than that they don’t feel like eating them. All of this adds up to a considerable amount of wasted food, with consequent bad effects upon the environment and the world’s impoverished people.

I don’t see myself becoming a gleaner/freegan. I’m more interested in being efficient by growing my own food and not buying more food than I eat. I do a little bit of gleaning by eating leftovers that my mother and sister would probably end up throwing out, even if there are other things that I would rather be eating. But I really can’t see myself raiding the trash bins behind grocery stores. Nonetheless, after watching this movie and reading this book I will be even more conscientious about not letting food go to waste.

Oh, and another thing I learned from this book is the best way to preserve head lettuce. Instead of storing it in the fridge, store it on the counter in a bowl with some water in it, just as you would do with cut flowers. Apparently a head of lettuce can remain good as new for well over a week if stored in this manner!

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