Film Review: Wasted! The Story of Food Waste

Anthony Bourdain narrates this conventional but persuasive doc about the world’s unreasonable, and unnecessary, waste of food.
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“Think of the starving children in [insert impoverished nation],” was a refrain heard regularly around my house when I was a child—and is still heard today, uttered in the direction of my own kids. While one might debate the use of guilt in such circumstances, the message was, and is, clear: Wasting food is bad. That’s a moral made in a far more comprehensive manner by Wasted! The Story of Food Waste, Anna Chai and Nari Kye’s documentary about the degree to which, on an individual and societal level, we’re misusing our food resources, to the detriment of ourselves, each other and the planet. Their film may not need a full 85 minutes to convince viewers of this cause’s righteousness, and their cinematic approach may be anything but inventive, but relative to its innumerable activist-movie brethren, it’s a sermonizing work as entertaining as it is informative.

Wasted!’s upbeat tone is set early via an intro interview with its narrator, Anthony Bourdain, who in his usual frank style asserts that he doesn’t like the idea of this movie, isn’t sure the human race even deserves to exist, and doesn’t really want to be an activist. Nonetheless, the famously blunt star confesses that he’s participating in Chai and Kye’s endeavor because, from his first days in a kitchen, he was taught a fundamental principle: Use everything. It’s a goal the ensuing proceedings show is achievable on a scale both large and small, and in ways that wouldn’t require many sacrifices. Moreover, realizing those ends would lead to healthier cuisines, a more bountiful environment, and economic profit as well. In other words, it’s a can’t-lose proposition.

Chai and Kye’s film contends that food should be properly consumed by humans, and then whatever is left over should be further utilized by feeding it to livestock, employing it for renewable energy (via anaerobic digesters that convert methane gas into electricity) or turning it into compost that enriches soil. What it should not do is wind up in a landfill, the final destination of 90% of all American food scraps, and a place where enormous quantities of methane gas are produced by slow decomposition, thus leading to environmental harm. It’s a no-brainer argument, and one that inevitably leads to discussions of other aspects of the issue, from supermarkets’ practice of unreasonably overstocking themselves, to Japanese pig farmers’ creation of specialized “eco-feed” concoctions to feed their animals (and, in the process, change what their pork will taste like), to a brewery’s use of discarded bread to craft their signature Toast Ale.

The directors’ analysis is carried out via a familiar mix of rapid-fire montages of everyday sights (farmers at work, people shopping at stores, food being harvested), interviews with chefs, farmers and authors, and cute graphics and animated sequences, such as a man painting title-card murals in fast-forward. When combined with the fact that its thesis is, from the outset, indisputable, such aesthetic conventionality makes Wasted! feel a tad sluggish. Nonetheless, the film capably traces the way in which not wasting food, and reprocessing that which we do waste, can have across-the-board benefits, including economic savings for citizens, corporations and governments alike. Although as Bourdain finally states, it’s not just a question of money; rather, it’s that “you either have empathy or you don’t.”

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