A Picture is Worth One Thousand Pounds: The Story of Food Waste
Two vegetarians haul a 47-pound pig, purchased at a deli in New York City’s Chinatown, across a living room in New Jersey. One of those vegetarians is me: I’ve got the the tail end. The other vegetarian is Senior Photo Editor Susan Welchman. She’s got the snout. We swing the pig into place. In adjusting its legs and propping up its head for the camera, we notice how deflated its body looks. This is, of course, because it has been gutted. We grab some plastic bags and stuff them into its body cavity to give it just enough “umph” for the shot.
Our task is to visualize how much food an average American family of four wastes in a year. For this we need three things: An accurate representation of the amount of food, an adventurous family willing to allow us to invade their home, and a photographer who is an expert at lighting.
Enter the USDA’s database on food availability and loss, the Waldt family in New Jersey, and photographer Robert Clark.
Susan picks me up at my apartment in Washington and we drive straight to a Costco in New Jersey.
We pull into the Costco parking lot. Armed with a shopping list of over 200 items, which our research team has painstakingly gleaned from the USDA’s list—complete with the calculated weight for each item—we start in the produce section. Whatever we include in the photograph needs to be tied to real numbers; it has to tell a real story.
We grab dozens of fresh onions accurately totalling 27.8 lbs, next we pile 18.8 lbs of fresh bananas on to the scale, and then 12.1 lbs of cantaloupe. An hour and a half passes in the produce aisle as we gather avocados, cherries, mushrooms, asparagus—you name it—carefully swapping out one avocado for another to get the weight just right.
Our fingers and clothes coated in dirt and dust from potatoes and cardboard boxes, we roll each full shopping cart to an area near the checkout, and return to the aisles. We move quickly and systematically; fresh produce to frozen fruit, milk and dairy to cooking oil and canned goods, grain products to meat, then fish and poultry. Each item we handle and weigh we consider visually: This can of tomatoes has a dent, it’s no good. Which bagels were the plumpest and which tomatoes the reddest? Is this the most handsome turkey we can find?
Finally we reach the checkout line with a long line of shopping carts in tow. We were nowhere near being finished as we couldn’t find all the items on our list at Costco—the pig, for example, or the beautiful salmon we used in the photograph. For certain cheeses, sweeteners, and more exotic fruits like mangoes, we need to go somewhere else. We each chug down a full bottle of water. No time for lunch, I grab a Larabar from my purse.
We arrive at the home of the Waldts—Dorothy, Peter, and their children Christopher, 14, and Chloe, 12. Effortlessly warm, Dorothy makes me a cappuccino after we’ve unloaded our groceries into their solarium. Being winter, the frozen items will stay frozen until the shoot the next day.
Rob is already at the house with his assistants planning his lighting set-up and assessing the room we will be shooting in. They have unloaded numerous bags and boxes containing their camera and lighting equipment into the Waldt’s living room. Peter, who is just as welcoming as his wife, surveys the scene while calmly sipping a mug of coffee. Chris asks Rob’s assistants about their camera equipment while Chloe tells us about her school project making salsa. We learn that the Waldts are not your average American family. They are incredibly conscientious about not wasting food. They show us their blueberry cages, garden, and compost area in the backyard; next to the kitchen sink is a small container for compostable food items.
We finish the last of our shopping at Fairway Market, a spot recommended by Dorothy.
8:00 a.m. (the next morning)
In the Waldt’s dining room, Susan takes the left side of the buffet and I take the right; we decided to group similar items together, moving towards the center. As Rob and his crew meticulously set up and adjust the lighting and camera angle we stack and re-stack loaves of bread and balls of mozzarella cheese; Rob looks through his viewfinder directing us on what looks best. We’re working hard to get everything ready to catch the afternoon light through the window.
Chris and Chloe arrive home from school ready and excited for the shoot. We wait until the last possible moment to arrange the meat, poultry and fish so they would not be out of refrigeration for too long.
We expect the Waldt’s dog Pluto to go berserk at the site of all the meat; instead he goes completely catatonic, his senses overloaded. Chris strokes Pluto’s head and as we position the family the light was reaching near perfection. As Rob begins shooting, he assesses his frames and makes improvements; directing the Waldt’s body positions and instructing his crew on how to adjust the lights for the optimal effect.
It’s a wrap. For all of the planning and preparation, the shoot itself only lasts about 45 minutes.
Dorothy has this to say: “I think a lot of people believe that having a photo shoot in their house is a big imposition but we enjoy that type of experience: watching the food being styled, the lighting get set up, understanding the art direction of the shot. We don’t waste a lot of food but it made us even more aware of how we consume food. This is an important topic that most Americans take for granted.”
Postscript: All the food from the shoot was donated to Integrity House in Newark, except the suckling pig which Rob froze for a pig roast at a later date.
“Waste Not,” is featured in the November 2014 issue as part of National Geographic‘s special eight-month "Future of Food" series.
Follow Jenna Turner and Robert Clark on Instagram: @jennamariefite and @robertclarkphoto.