Can food waste be beautiful? This question was posed by a Your Story contributor and inspired the first blog on ‘Food waste as art’ back in September, where I explored how artists have captured the morbidly fascinating process of decay.
It turns out that creating art from food waste is not a rare phenomenon, and since joining Instagram as @foodwastewriter I’ve discovered even more examples of people turning disgust into delight. For the second instalment of food waste as art, I talked to three creators who use Instagram to showcase their weird and wonderful combinations. In these conversations it became apparent that not only can food waste be beautiful, but behind the scenes it can be political too.
Many of us have been confined to our homes for much of the past year and have become more acquainted with our surroundings and daily habits. Food waste has been given more attention as a result, and one artist used lockdown as an opportunity for art, turning her kitchen into a studio.
“I thought the kitchen waste in my bin was really beautiful and began a diary photographing it – the images often look like still life paintings.”
Liz Elton is a British artist who often considers food and nourishment in her wider practice, so photographing food waste was an organic next step (pun intended).
This year has been a real challenge for the art world, as exhibitions closed and commissions dried up. Liz is selling her prints of food waste, and has signed up to the Artist Support Pledge, whereby every time she reaches sales of $1000 equivalent, she pledges to buy another artist’s work for $200 equivalent. A donation to the food bank charity the Trussell Trust in the UK also accompanies each sale.
It is not just professional artists who have been inspired by food waste over lockdown. Lu (@das_biomuellquadrat on Instagram) has a background in sustainability sciences in Austria, and separating organic matter from household waste has always been important to her.
“Then I just saw how pretty the contents of my waste box were, and the colours and different textures of nature just made me personally happy,” she explains. “Collecting compost can be a pleasurable and pretty experience. It’s not simply a gooey and smelly mess but has its aesthetic side too.”
Lu frames her waste pieces in her white compost container, neat for an Instagram format. In contrast, Ryan Dawes (@compost_in_space), who works at Trader Joe’s in Minnesota as a side job, uses black compost buckets which makes it look as if his combinations have been laid out on a black velvet rug or are floating in space.
The crew at Trader Joe’s deal with food waste ad-hoc during the day, which leads to unusual combinations in the black flower buckets they use as compost bins. “These buckets end up containing such strange food pairings, sometimes complete with a garnish, with appealing colour and textures. And because it’s mostly food, there is an implication of taste. What would peas and blueberries taste like, together? How about Joe’s Os and broccoli? They sure look good together.”
The combinations are a product of the Trader Joe’s food policies which mean that any unsealed or returned items have to be thrown out. These practices mean a bizarre array of food waste ends up in the buckets. “I was entertained by these unusual and occasionally grotesque combinations of foods, so I had to start taking photos of the chance mixtures.”
None of the artists deliberately waste food to make their photographs more appealing, and neither do they shy away from showing the mould and rot. Often it adds to the composition of the photograph. In each of the projects, you find yourself admiring the photographs for their colours and textures, only to realise they are actually discards. Liz says this is one aim of her images – that “people will initially find the images beautiful or seductive, and maybe see as they look closer that they’re images of waste”.
The projects have inspired them to think differently about food waste themselves and solidified their passion for tackling it. “I feel it more acutely when I throw away a whole vegetable or fruit that went bad because I didn’t eat it in time or didn’t store it correctly,” says Lu. “It makes a difference when you share that with other people.”
“I definitely pay more attention to what we’re tossing out,” adds Ryan. “I do think to myself, ‘Damn, I could’ve eaten that, or SOMEONE could’ve eaten that’. I think about it a lot and it affects how I shop and cook.”
“I remain appalled that so much food is wasted,” says Liz. “We get a lot of our veg and fruit as rescue boxes from our local market – produce that is past it’s best and needs a little sorting through. I hate the thought it might be wasted.”
She may approve of Trader Joe’s approach, whereby most of unsold, safe food is donated and distributed. Last year, the company donated 78 million pounds [35 million kg] of food, equalling $384 million. Ryan’s store partners with two different food shelves and has consistently donated over $900,000 worth of food per year.
“It’s a great feeling,” he says. “I love it when, say, a rack of lamb or a steak is about to expire the following day that is still perfectly good meat – and that we get the opportunity to freeze it, log the item in our donation tracking system, then pass it along to a responsible organization that will give it to someone who needs it.”
Ryan explains that the compost buckets represent a fraction of the food Trader Joe’s donates, but because of the companies’ policies, “a lot of the food you see in the photos definitely would be fine to eat and its tossed because it doesn’t fit donation requirements. And sometimes it looks fine to eat, but it definitely isn’t.”
Although these creators shared their projects without aiming to raise awareness about food waste, under the surface, they have all revealed food issues in some way or other. Ryan loves that Trader Joe’s gives food away to those who need it, and it is inspiring that Liz donates a proportion of her sales to the Trussell Trust. But the Trust itself highlights that the very existence of food banks signals stark inequality; their website proclaims: “No one should be forced to turn to any charity because they can’t afford food”.
In another blog, I cited more charities who warn against using food banks as a way of legitimising food waste, as it takes the responsibility of food poverty away from government. Redistributing waste to food banks or similar organisations is just a sticking plaster on the issue of food poverty, and the onus is on our governments to tackle the root problems.
For Lu, the project has also shone a light on how people categorise food waste in the first place. “I started to think about using the ‘waste” that accumulates’ (onion or carrot peels, coffee grounds, tea leaves) in other ways than to just throw them away. For example, I’ve been exploring how those could be used as fertilizer for plants.”
She also touched upon the need for system change, emphasising the unrealistic aesthetic standards we and supermarkets have for food. “This is an important topic in general, why some produce is considered not ‘pretty’ enough, and that our fridges and supermarkets are often so full that we don’t bother with making the most out of our food.” This is another pertinent issue, as charity Feedback found that some supermarkets in the UK make billions of pounds from the food we waste at home.
Möller states that “Art is political also if it reinterprets ‘what previously was seen and known’ […] These reinterpretations help reveal existing power relations within society”. I believe that by subverting what is ‘known’ about waste, and making it beautiful, these creators make us re-evaluate how we perceive food and waste.
As we saw with the Marcus Rashford campaign for free school meals, food is political. Similarly, artistic depictions of food waste will always reflect ‘power relations within society’ in some way, whether it is what we decide food waste is to begin with, how to tackle food waste from supermarkets and whether distributing to food banks is appropriate way of tackling poverty.