Using art to visualize surprising info about food waste

"The Afternoon Meal," circa 1772, by the Spanish artist Luis Meléndez


I read a story in the NY Times the other day that presented me with some shocking info about food waste … the article (linked here, although you may need a Times subscription to read it) stated a few interesting facts: first, that food waste, when rotting in a landfill, contributes to 8-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions, double of what is produced by aviation. Second, in the U.S., the largest volume of material sent to landfills and incinerators is food waste; and third, and perhaps most shocking of all: in current times, approximately 30% of all food that is grown, shipped or sold is wasted.

To try to help visualize that, I found this painting titled “The Afternoon Meal,” circa 1772, by the Spanish artist Luis Meléndez, which is in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We’ll see the original at top, and below I’ve taken some of the pears, peaches, grapes and bread, and thrown them in the trash.

A depiction of food waste using a painting by Luis Melendez
“The Afternoon Meal,” before (top) and after (bottom) food waste occurs.

I know this might seem like a silly exercise, Photoshopping-out some food from an 18th Century painting, but I just wanted to try to visualize a big problem that seems to offer some positive solutions, if good solutions can be found. All of the people who are hungry in the world, how do we re-direct potentially wasted food to them? The article mentions a woman in California who literally drives around to supermarkets to collect food that is marked to be thrown away due to “about-to-expire” and “best by” dates on the packaging, and she redirects it to a local charity and food kitchen. Granted, timing is of the essence, to get this food which is fine for just a short time longer to those who can consume it sooner rather than later, but it’s one small step that if multiplied by a lot, could do a lot of good.

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