Yes, it seems gross, and downright dangerous, to subsist on dumpster dinners (and breakfasts and lunches) for half a year. But that’s just what this couple did—and lived to tell us all about.
Jen Rustemeyer and her husband Grant Baldwin didn’t worry themselves with thoughts of scurvy and E. coli when they set out to make Just Eat It, a food waste documentary that’s won rave reviews in Canada and is now screening in the US. Instead, they were more interested in what—and how much—people were tossing. “I just didn’t believe the stat that 40% of food gets wasted,” says Jen. “We wanted to point fingers and see who was doing it.”
And while the couple did find the answers to those questions (to get those, you’ll have to watch the movie!), they also learned about ups and downs of living off of rescued food. Here, five crazy things that they discovered while eating trash:
You WILL NOT have trouble finding perfectly good food.
Over the course of those 6 months, Jen and Grant managed to feed themselves almost solely with food that they had rescued from supermarket dumpsters. (They occasionally brought home leftovers from family members’ dinners, too.)
That might sound like a gamble, but apparently, most grocery stores are tossing tons of delicious stuff every day. “If you wanted to eat all organic, all vegan or all gluten-free, it would be possible to do it dumpster diving,” says Jen.
The couple regularly found fresh fruits and vegetables that were tossed because they were slightly bruised or oddly shaped. (Read about the ugly produce movement.) There were tubs of unexpired hummus. Whole cartons of eggs that were deemed unfit for sale because one corner of the carton was broken. One time, they even scored a gigantic package of still-frozen chicken that was big enough to last them for 2 months. As for dessert? They had that covered, too. “We had hundreds of chocolate bars,” she says.
But you still sometimes might worry that you’re going to go hungry.
Even with all that food, the idea that they couldn’t just stroll into the supermarket to buy more if they needed to left Jen and Grant a little uneasy. “There was definitely more stress. There was this element of scarcity in the beginning since we didn’t know where our next meal would be coming from,” she says.
That changed somewhat over time. As the project went on, the couple actually built up a stockpile that was so big that they encouraged friends to take stuff home with them whenever anyone came to visit. Even so, the worry never went away entirely. “We’d go back and forth. When there wasn’t any milk left, we thought, what are we going to do?” Jen says.
And you’ll eat more junk than you’re used to.
You know how it’s a lot easier to eat packaged snacks if they’re there for the taking? Dumpster diving amplifies that by a million. Because the couple was constantly finding things like boxed crackers or bagged chips, they felt all but compelled to take them home. “We fully justified it, because we were saving the food from being wasted. In our minds, we made it OK,” says Jen.
Which means you might gain some weight.
Before starting the project, Jen and Grant stuck to a mostly whole-food diet. But having all those snacks around suddenly meant they were chowing down on way more sugar and refined carbohydrates. Which predictably, led to some changes on the scale. “It works better if we just don’t buy those foods, since once they’re in our house, we eat them,” says Jen. Over the course of the 6-month project, Grant gained 10 pounds. As for Jen? Her weight stayed about the same, but she credits that to a naturally speedy metabolism.
But you’ll learn a few valuable lessons.
For starters, how to cook more confidently. Not always being able to find “dumpstered” versions of foods that you need for a recipe means you get smart about making substitutions—fast. For instance, Jen figured out that she could use coconut oil instead of butter in baking. And if a recipe called for a green vegetable that she didn’t have, swapping in one that she did have almost always worked.
And, more important, they learned how to rescue food safely. Jen and Grant never got sick—but they did discover that those sell-by and use-by dates on food packages—including perishables like milk—are ultraconservative. (Here’s your guide to sell-by, use-by, and best-by labels.) “We used our senses. If it smelled good and tasted good, it was fine,” she says.