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Finding Beauty in Food Waste

Photographer Aliza Eliazarov reclaims discarded food by reimagining it in the style of the 17th-century masters.

Aliza Eliazarov

Crusty bread, a silver pitcher, and grapes spilling decadently from an upturned cup. This still life has all the trappings of a seventeenth-century painting by a Dutch master, with one caveat—all the food is technically garbage. Everything, from the fruit to the basil, was fished out of trash bags from a bakery and neighboring market in the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn.

More than 40 percent of food in the United States is thrown away. Yet almost 15 percent of American households lack access to the amount of food necessary for an active, healthy life. The current hodgepodge labeling system accounts for much of the waste. There are “sell by,” “use by,” “enjoy by,” and “freeze by” dates, along with a host of others.

In the absence of federal regulation, manufacturers get to decide what language to use. Often, labels are designed to tell consumers when a product will taste best, or push retailers to rotate their stock. But it’s easy for people to get confused while browsing store shelves or surveying their refrigerators. Over 90 percent of individuals report discarding food after its “sell by” date, out of concern that the food is no longer safe to eat—even though the products pose no actual health risk.

Across the country, dumpster divers, or “freegans,” are combating food waste by reclaiming discarded but still-edible food from the trash. When photographer Aliza Eliazarov began dumpster diving around New York City in 2011, she was struck by the unblemished beauty of the food. In her series “Waste Not,” she shows the wide variety of products plucked from the garbage that can end up as both fodder for art and food for the hungry. If it looks good enough to eat, one can argue, why shouldn’t we?

This week, Aliza Eliazarov takes over the New Republic’s Instagram account at @NewRepublic.