Meet the Inspiring Heroes Fighting Food Waste and Hunger

'Robin Hoods of the Waste Stream' is an uplifting documentary about farmers and entrepreneurs making a difference.

farmer's table
Founders of Heart 2 Heart Farms share an outdoor meal with volunteers.

Karney Hatch

If you are looking for a film to make you feel good about the world, watch "Robin Hoods of the Waste Stream: The Food Waste Solutions Documentary." This feature-length film explores numerous rescue projects, mostly across the United States, and the people behind them who are working to combat food waste in unique and effective ways. 

This film is different from other food waste documentaries I've seen (and there are a lot of them out there). It explains the parallel problems of excessive wasted food and people facing food shortages, but it doesn't dwell on them; instead, its focus is on the problem-solvers and everything they're doing to fix this nonsensical dilemma.

The film has no narrator or lead character going between the projects to interview people, so viewers don't ever get a sense of who's making the film. (Note: It was made by videographer Karney Hatch of Portland, Oregon, and premiered online in August 2020.) Rather, it presents a series of consecutive segments with footage of the various projects and detailed explanations by the people who run them. 

Robin Hoods of the Waste Stream stills
Curtis and Deborah are two dedicated volunteers who have run Urban Gleaners in Portland, OR, for the past five years.

Karney Hatch

The projects are diverse. The film starts with Heart 2 Heart Farms in Portland, which created a free weekly pantry for people to collect produce that would otherwise go to landfill. Getting to know the farmers there was, in fact, the impetus for filmmaker Karney Hatch to make the film. He told Treehugger:

"Here you have a relatively small operation that's intercepting fruits and vegetables on the way to the landfill and feeding hundreds of people plus all of their farm animals, and they're saving over five million pounds of food per year from being thrown away – and they are just scratching the surface. They're taking only part of the waste from one medium-sized produce distributor in a suburb of Portland.
If you do the math, there is a huge impact that can be made if people replicate their model. And they are replicating it; they've consulted with numerous farms and businesses in the US and some overseas as well. Once I started digging a little deeper and doing my research for the film, I realized that this is really a boom time for food waste solutions, and so many of them are scalable and replicable."

Hatch went looking for the best projects he could find, from California to New York to Europe, and even Brazil, where he found an "amazing project where they take the waste from a food court in a large shopping mall, compost it on-site, and grow vegetables on the roof of the mall to give away free to their employees." That project resonated with him because it's cheaper to run it than pay to have waste hauled to the dump. 

Imperfect Foods founder Ben Simon
Imperfect Foods founder Ben Simon shows off his carrot tricks.

Karney Hatch

What inspired Hatch most was hearing so many people say, "Yes, please, copy our model." As he pointed out, "There's way more than enough food to go around. Whether it's a big operation like Imperfect Foods or a small inspiring operation like Heart 2 Heart Farms that could be replicated ten thousand times across the country, there's reason for optimism in terms of putting more and more of this massive waste stream to better use."

Some of the other projects include the Food Recovery Network, which started rescuing food from the University of Maryland's cafeteria and now has campus chapters all across the country; Imperfect Foods, which sells grocery boxes with ingredients that don't meet aesthetic standards or may have minor deficiencies; Ample Harvest, which connects home gardeners with food banks desperate for fresh ingredients; Too Good To Go, the app that helps restaurants sell leftover food at the end of the day; and Copia, a technology developer that helps businesses to redistribute their surplus and tracks data to make better decisions going forward. Food waste experts Dana Gunders and Tristram Stuart reappear throughout the film, offering context and statistics.

Robin Hoods of the Waste Stream interviewees
Interviewees on 'Robin Hoods of the Waste Stream'.

Karney Hatch

Hatch told Treehugger that he had two main goals in creating the film. One was to educate people and show that there are things they can do if they care about this issue, e.g. sign up for an Imperfect Foods box. The other was to give farmers, entrepreneurs, and "fellow idealists" ideas about "things they could do if they want to start a business in the food waste space." This work also helps the climate crisis: "Between the agricultural and transportation waste that can be mitigated and all the methane that rotting food produces, this is an important part of the fight against climate change, ranked third out of eighty by Project Drawdown on their list of climate change solutions."

Hatch, like the subjects of his film, sees food waste as an abundant resource. "There's basically a torrential stream of food waste moving towards every landfill and composting facility in the world, and there are so many ways to both intercept that stream and make a profit while doing it. Komal Ahmad [founder of Copia] is right: This really is the world's dumbest problem, because it's about more efficient distribution and re-configuring the existing system, not about completely changing anything. We don't have to re-invent the wheel, we just have to add a few tweaks to the vehicle we're already driving and we'll end up in a much greener, more sustainable place where we all can thrive."

When asked how the pandemic affected these anti-food waste initiatives, Hatch pointed out that food insecurity has increased, but that these projects have responded promptly to the need. "Almost everyone from the film that I've talked to is full of stories about new missions and new initiatives that they've launched during the pandemic to serve the new, even higher demand."

It is profoundly refreshing to watch a documentary about a serious environmental issue that fills one with inspiration and hope at the end. Viewers will realize the severity of the problem and want to take action in their own lives, but they'll also be aware that there are wonderful, innovative projects already making a real difference to millions of people. 

You can view the film here.