At first glance, one might think this was the waiting area for an audition. People milled about a room in the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Central Parkway Library, examining their roles. Author and journalist Carol Saline carefully studied hers, which read, “You are... Boris Ivanovska. Age: 68. Marital Status: Married to Penka, 66. You and your wife are Russian immigrants who moved to Philadelphia in the early 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union.”
Theater of cruelty
But it was no audition. This was Food for a Week, a hunger simulation created by the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger as part of its Good Food for All conference. Individuals were assigned “roles” (based on real people facing food insecurity in Philadelphia) and tasked with acquiring as much food as possible given their unique circumstances.
A coalition staffer coolly instructed the entire group to get moving. Noelle Dames, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) outreach coordinator, announced, “We’re not going to give you a lot of instruction because it doesn’t come with a manual in real life either.”
The small conference room was quiet as participants stopped at desks occupied by more staff and labeled with printed signs: “Food Pantry,” “County Assistance Office,” “Store.” As participants began experiencing increasingly long lines, poor communication, and steep prices, hands went on hips and toes started impatiently tapping. When the County Assistance Office “clerk” announced her break, several people groaned. Within just a few minutes, the energy of the room spiraled into frustration.
The activity was one of more than ten breakout sessions offered at the third annual conference, where it was evident that many food-justice organizations are turning to the arts to inspire action for their cause. They’re not just talking about hunger anymore; they’re showing it.
What better way to cultivate empathy and inspire action around an issue than to enlist interactive techniques that have already proven successful for visual and culinary art, music, theater, and multimedia organizations?