We gathered at a communal table, each setting marked by a plate of light. Then, one by one, the plates vanished, and we strangers sat together in the dark.
Table for 20
On a screen at one end of the table, a photograph appeared: Bill, a white man with beefy forearms and a “Detroit” T-shirt. Then Marilyn, with her oxygen tubes and her Chihuahua, joined us at the opposite end of the table. Next came Whitney, an African-American woman in a scrub shirt, and Blanca, a pensive teen. Through recorded voiceovers, they took turns telling their stories of hunger.
“Now I’m worried about feeding my family,” Bill said. “It makes me feel like a garbage can out there, just waiting to be picked up.”
“I changed the way I eat because I don’t have the money,” said Whitney.
Occasionally, lines from their monologues would appear, scripted in light on the table: “There’s nothing there… We have to make the food last… Don’t ever think this can’t happen to you.” Finally, to the muted thwop sound of a knife on a cutting board, our plates reappeared. Each held one half of a cherry tomato.
Bill, Barbara, Whitney, and Blanca are four of the estimated 42 million Americans—about one in eight people—who experience hunger. A multimedia exhibit housed in an expandable semitrailer, which arrived in Philadelphia this week, aims to bring that struggle home. “We wanted people to be able to speak in their own voices,” says Abby Leibman, president and CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, the advocacy organization that created This Is Hunger. Black-and-white portraits, taken over the course of three years in every region of the country, and voiceovers gleaned from hours of interviewing underscore that hunger is not partisan: It affects children and old people, families and singles, women and men of all races, sizes, and locations.
“Our idea of hunger is based on what we see in the Third World: the little child with a distended stomach who’s emaciated,” said photographer Barbara Grover. After crisscrossing the United States visiting soup kitchens, food-stamp offices, and people’s homes, she realized that “hunger . . . can afflict any one of us.”
The exhibit’s creators hope everyone who sees “This Is Hunger” will feel the gut punch of that understanding. In the collage of faces, surely there is someone who resembles a neighbor, a colleague, a friend. The table—where viewers sit, in groups of 20 to 30, for the immersive 14-minute video—is both a literal gathering place and a metaphor, reminding us of status and exclusion, full plates and empty ones.
When the lights come up, viewers can spend another half hour examining infographics (“Hunger in the Military,” “Hunger Among Seniors”) or looking at additional portraits projected on the trailer walls and gathered, along with individuals’ stories, into a book. This Is Hunger also insists that visitors do more than just look. They can, with the help of a placemat that lists food items and their costs, attempt to plan a balanced dinner for the lean Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamp) allotment of $1.40 per person per meal.
My first try—whole-grain bread, chicken breast, broccoli, cheese, and an apple—was out of range at $3.40. I scaled back to pasta, eggs, kale, yogurt and watermelon: $1.59, still too spendy. Once I subbed canned black beans for eggs, my dinner made the cut.
The creators of This Is Hunger hope viewers will take the next step—from “aha” to advocacy. That’s why the exhibit includes three iPads where people can sign a petition urging Congress to retain SNAP benefits; anti-hunger placards they can hold for selfies and post to social media; and an activity that helps distinguish between charity (planting a community garden) and social justice (lobbying farmers’ markets to accept SNAP cards as payment). “We hope that there’s a spark to take action,” says Marni Gittleman, the project’s creative director. “And we hope that becomes a larger commitment to create systemic change.”
Hungry for change
The exhibit “is meant to be the beginning, not the end,” says Leibman. “We think of hunger as a civil rights issue. Nothing will change unless there is pressure put on policymakers by the public.”
After four Philadelphia-area synagogue venues, This Is Hunger will head for New Jersey. The tour will hit a total of 15 metropolitan areas by July 2017. Even as it travels, the truck speaks; the outside is scripted with lines from participant interviews: “This is hunger… This is trying to finish your work on an empty stomach… This is putting something back at checkout… This is feeling like you’re on a sinking ship.”
Too bad the rig can't roll to a stop in the president’s backyard.