Kieran Kolle completed an unusual trip. With a group of friends, he biked from the north to the south of Norway, traveling three thousand kilometers and eating only food that would otherwise end up in garbage. Subsisting on only expired food, they still ate like kings, Kolle says. This isn’t good news for the world. “People throw out as much as 1/3 of food. Each year, an average household in Norway ends up throwing out food that’s worth hundreds of euros,” adds Kolle who directed Expired, one of the most successful documentaries included in KineDok. You can watch the film on December 19 at the Zastávka Regional Info Center near Brno.
What do you think is the worst thing about food waste?
The worst thing is to throw out meat. Meat has high production costs and people end up wasting a lot of money in the process, yet they do it anyway.
Speaking of meat, there’s a chef in your film who claims that beef tastes best several months after the expiration date. Was he serious?
He might have exaggerated a bit. But he meant to say that if you store beef in a cold and dry place, it can last a really long time – longer than the date listed on the packaging.
The film showed another surprising thing – bananas. How do you explain that people won’t buy single bananas, only bunches so that a lot of fresh, single bananas end up in the trash?
I can’t answer this one, it’s a bit of a mystery. People are used to buying unripe bananas and for some reason, they believe that bananas are doing better in a bunch. Retailers have learned to deal with it.
Why do we waste food?
One of the main reasons for the massive food waste, in Norway at least, is that food is too cheap. There’s a lot of competition and products, as well as various discount offers like “buy x products from this brand and get a discount”, which leads to some absurd situations. You can buy some products at a price lower than its production cost. Another, a bit more complex reason is that we live far away from places that produce food. We live in cities, we can’t see vegetables growing in the fields, we don’t keep livestock. Food means just something we buy in a plastic bag at the supermarket and then toss it. We don’t appreciate food. That’s why on average people throw out as much as 1/3 of food.
Who’s to blame? Consumers, producers, supermarkets?
That’s a classic chicken-or-egg problem. They all share some blame. The market shapes consumer behavior and vice versa. For instance, retailers spend a lot of time on discarding ugly looking fruit and vegetable. A misshapen apple or a cucumber don’t ever make it to stores, which then shapes our idea of what an ideal cucumber and apple should look like. It forms customer expectations and the way we think about food – and customers then demand the same ideal produce from the stores. It’s a vicious cycle.
Isn’t food waste just a logical result of customer protection? If we don’t want retailers to sell rotten apples, we have to accept strict regulations and their side effect – a lot of preemptive food waste.
There’ll always be some food that needs to be thrown away. Food goes bad, it’s natural. What isn’t natural is the amount of food in the trash that’s not spoiled. Why do we do it when it’s not damaged or harmful? We just look at the expiration date instead of judging food based on its appearance, smell or taste. We use numbers instead of our own judgment. Another reason for global food waste is the retailer strategy to quickly restock goods so that customers feel that supermarkets are always fully stocked. While we might feel good about it, we pay the price of high food waste.
How did you think of combining activism and bikes?
I’d been working on a food waste film for a couple of years and got to a point when I didn’t know how to go on. One day I was on my bike and came up with the idea to combine both things – less food waste and bikes, both are good for the environment so why not?
You didn’t know how much food you’d be able to get during your trip. Did you take into account the possibility you might go hungry?
That’s why we got supplies of food bound for the garbage. We packed a lot of rice, hoping everything would work out. And it did. We biked around a hundred kilometers every day and none of us lost any weight. As far as quantity, we ate as much as before. I also believe we ate better and more expensive food than usual.
What did you like the best?
We ate like kings on our very first night. We got some meat which we grilled and we had cans of expired beer. Delicious! I also enjoyed a meal from food waste they cooked for us at a restaurant.
What was the worst experience?
One day we had nothing but raw carrot. It was a sad day.
Is this a problem with eating food waste? You can’t always choose what you’d like to eat.
Most of the time, we had a lot to choose from. Big supermarkets always have a great selection. Other stores might have less to choose from but you can always get creative, put together a few things and cook anything. Considering that millions of people around the world are starving, the issue of selection seems like a first-world problem.
At times you had to dive into a trash container. Was it awful?
I won’t pretend it was great. Just imagine it’s summer, you’re on a bike trip with no way to keep really clean, you at least try to wash everything. A day or two before reaching our next stop, we called local stores and asked them to save some food for us but we didn’t want food from the trash. But it’s not that you couldn’t find perfectly packaged food in a container. It’s more of a mental barrier. We tend to think that food in the trash must be rotten and spoiled. That’s not always the case. It can come in a nice packaging, completely fine.
Can you see yourself eating like this over the long term?
Yes, I’m trying.
What do you do?
I try to minimize food waste in my home. Roughly one half of the food we eat is from stores that would throw it away. I haven’t bought meat for three years even though I’m not a vegetarian and I enjoy meat. But I try to keep some distance, I don’t want to be obsessed with food. Whenever I get stressed out about what to eat, my wife tells me it’s getting a bit fanatical.
If I wanted to have less food waste, what’s the first thing I should do?
Have a shopping list when you go to the store. Don’t just buy stuff at random. It’s good to have a weekly meal plan. You can go shopping more often than just once a week but buy only things you really need. It’s also important to keep your fridge properly organized. Don’t overstock it and don’t store food for too long. But the most important and the most difficult thing to do if you really want to reduce food waste is to be pay less attention to expiration and best-by dates. For instance, don’t look at the date on a milk bottle. Just open it and smell it and if it doesn’t stink, just go ahead and drink it. The same goes for other types of food. Pay attention to the smell, color, texture, not the date on the label.
In some cities, there are successful food banks. Retailers donate food to activists who then distribute it or cook meals for homeless people. How does it work in Norway?
There are food banks in Norway as well. During our trip we stopped and ate at one of them. Over the last five years, the situation has improved a lot, people are more aware of the problem. It’s in their own interest anyway, nobody wants to waste food or money. People feel frustrated, they’d like to turn things around. Everybody knows that food waste is a global problem that isn’t sustainable. Another idea involves second-hand grocery stores where you can buy food past the best-by date. It’s perfectly fine, ketchup, for example, can last years without going bad. That’s a great idea but as far as I know, we don’t have stores like that in Norway – and I don’t mean a single shelf with products close to best-by date you can find in most supermarkets. The thing is, there are two ways to mark food in the European market and people often get them mixed up, i.e., expiration date and best-by date. You can sell goods past the best-by date but not goods with an old expiration date. That’s why it’s all so complicated.
Expired will be screened as part of KineDok:
> December 19, 5.30 p.m.: Regionální informační centrum Zastávka (CZ)