This Bite-Size Documentary Reveals the Enormity of America's Food-Waste Problem

See how one community is trying to make sense out of the insane system that supplies what we eat.

(Image: 'Man in the Maze'/Vimeo)

Feb 3, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Even for those relatively well versed in the issues surrounding our culture’s dismal epidemic of food waste, it's a shocking scene: A dump truck unceremoniously tips an entire load of what appears to be perfectly edible produce into a landfill.

The moment occurs just a few minutes into Man in the Maze, one of five films to nab a top nod (and $10,000) at this year’s Sundance Institute Short Film Challenge. The documentary is having its world premiere, so to speak, this week on the website of Tucson's Arizona Daily Star.

Which is appropriate, as the bite-size documentary focuses on the efforts of locals in nearby Santa Cruz County to make sense of a food system that is anything but sensible.

Our guide here is Gary Paul Nabhan, a sort of Renaissance man vis-à-vis the local food movement: writer, activist, academic, farmer, “wild foods forager and pollinator habitat restorationist.” Nabhan made a name for himself back in the 1980s when he cofounded Native Seeds/SEARCH, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the rich agricultural legacy of the indigenous peoples of the Southwest.

More recently, he's turned his attention to food waste, a tangible issue in the borderlands. As he informs us, 25 to 30 percent of the produce Americans consume comes up from Mexico through the border towns, trucked by thousands of semis along a “big food superhighway.” Yet an unconscionable amount ends up in the dump.

“If Florida tomato prices drop on a certain day,” Nabhan offers by way of example, “120,000 pounds might be thrown in a landfill just because of pricing.”

Such waste is galling when you consider that economically disadvantaged Santa Cruz County suffers from some of the highest rates of child food insecurity in the state.

The wanton waste would be thoroughly depressing were it not for the rest of the eight-minute film, which touches on the inspirational ways that the community is coming together to create a more just and equitable food system. Borderlands Food Bank, for example, rescues between 30 and 40 million pounds of produce each produce season, saving it from landfills and redistributing it to area residents who have limited access to affordable fresh produce.

The fascinating work of Native Seeds/SEARCH to preserve the seed stock developed by indigenous groups in the Southwest and adapted for the region’s arid climate gets due attention as well, as does the group’s equally important efforts to reestablish locals’ connection with the land. Worth noting is that despite the Southwest’s reputation as suitable for growing nothing but cacti and sagebrush, the chronicles of early European explorers record native communities farming a dizzying array of drought-tolerant crops—a precedent that we might do well to learn from as we confront climate change.

Short as it is, Man in the Maze provides plenty of food for thought, including Nabhan’s parting words: “Food is a sacrament; food is what binds us together. It behooves all of us, whether it's for health reasons or because we care about the land or because our faith requires us to care about the people most marginalized by our broken food system, to heal that food system. That’s the only way we’re going to heal our economies, our bodies, and our land.”