food waste from food photo shoots Food for Thought

Lights, Camera, Food Waste

New York photographer Andrew Scrivani teaches the craft of food photography to aspiring bloggers and photographers around the world. No matter where he’s teaching, students are always curious about one thing: What happens to the leftover food after the shoot? Does he get to eat it, or does it get thrown out?

“I say yes, we absolutely eat the food. A lot of times that’s dinner,” says Scrivani. “We rescue as much food as possible.”

Eating the food that ends up in the pages of a glossy food magazine sounds like a perk—and it often is—but for the photographers, stylists and crew who work in food media, stewarding what can sometimes be a colossal amount of leftovers from a photo shoot is also a task laden with moral and environmental implications.

In recent years, a series of reports have shed light on the problem of food waste. In the United States, we waste up to 40 percent of food produced while more than 40 million people live in food insecure households. All the water, fuel, and money used to produce that food get wasted as well, and, once it is at the landfill, decomposing food creates methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

No one is keeping track of how much food gets wasted in the food media, but it definitely weighs heavy on the minds of many professionals.

“There’s a real respect around food, considering it’s where our living comes from,” says Henry Hargreaves, a New York artist and food photographer. Right now, he has six months worth of berries left over from a shoot stashed in his freezer. “I blend them every morning in my Vitamix.” He’s also eaten colored rice left over from shooting his “Mark Rice-Ko” project and routinely serves up what he’s shooting for lunch.

When Scrivani, whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Eating Well, is working in his small studio, he takes care to treat food in a way that it remains edible. He works quickly and uses clean plates and utensils. If he needs to make something glisten, he sprays it with water and oil instead of lacquer.

This careful attention isn’t always possible, however. For larger-scale shoots, especially commercials, the amount of food that gets wasted can be “deplorable,” Scrivani says. For a cheese company shoot, his client built a mock cheese cave and filled it with five refrigerators full of cheese. After sitting on a warm set for six hours, none of it was eligible to be donated—it all had to be thrown away. “When you start to use food as a prop, you run into these problems,” says Scrivani.

Victoria Granof, a New York food stylist, has similar stories. In order to get perfect scoops of ice cream for a recent commercial, her client sent more than 350 gallons of ice cream. Why so much? To ensure each scoop had an accurate representation of “inclusions,” the bits and swirls of ingredients.

“We just have to keep scooping and scooping until we get the right scoop. Once we have that, we have to keep scooping to get 20 that are identical to that because it melts,” Granof says. Even so, they only went through a quarter of what was ordered, she said.

The leftover ice cream was perfectly safe to eat, but this particular client doesn’t allow Granof to donate it. “It’s gone through too many hands,” she says.

Some large food companies are hesitant to donate food out of concerns for liability, even though donors are protected under federal law by the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act. Or, the company may not want word getting out about a new product that’s not on sale yet. “It’s all very top secret until a product is released,” said Nicole Kruzick, a Los Angeles and Toronto-based food stylist.

Food gets wasted for lots of other reasons during photo shoots. It gets poked and prodded by crew members, sits out under hot lights, and may be doused with inedible sprays and shellacs to get it camera-ready. It may get arranged on the floor or even thrown in the air. Stylists order multiple cases of avocado and sort through to find the perfect one at the studio rather than shopping ahead of time. Or, there simply may have been too much food ordered for lunch for the crew.

All the stylists and photographers I talked to encourage their crews take home as much leftover food as they want, or they’ll box it up for neighbors and messengers or package delivery people who frequent their studios. But that doesn’t always take care of it all. Granof was on a shoot where a company sent an 80-pound box of meat to shoot one meatball.

The photographers and stylists I talked to try to donate unused food to nonprofits whenever possible. They are protected from liability under the federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act, as long as they have not acted with “gross negligence or intentional misconduct.” Donors must also follow the guidelines set out by recovery organizations. City Harvest, a New York nonprofit that rescues food and distributes it to hunger-relief organizations, requires prepared food be made by “a regulated or licensed food business,” which excludes many food stylists. That 80-pound box of meat? City Harvest couldn’t take it because it was opened.

A shelter or soup kitchen will often have looser standards for direct donations. Many organizations and smaller food rescue groups like Rescuing Leftover Cuisine will even pick up the food.

“You don’t have to look far to find a shelter or soup kitchen,” says Granof. “It’s up to each person in our industry to handle it the best they can.”

Sometimes that means taking matters into their own hands. Granof used apples from a recent shoot to make lemon-coriander applesauce, apple butter and a paste to serve with cheese. She preserves lemons to give as gifts. Kruzick makes sue she saves packaging and bags so the crew has a way to carry food home at the end of the day. New York food stylist Michelle Gatton composts what she can at home or takes scraps to a compost collection site at the farmers market.

“You try to do what you can when you can,” says Scrivani. “We’re dealing with something that is a privilege. We’re showing that food is something that is a luxury, and it’s not always a luxury for everyone.”

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