We are sitting at a table, shining circles of white representing plates at a virtual dinner table in a trailer parked in the parking lot of Temple Chai in Phoenix. Soon the plates in front of us disappear – there is no food to put on them. At each end of the table is a screen, placed as if they are chairs.
The “This is Hunger,” experience, a community engagement program of MAZON, a Jewish Response to Hunger, draws us into people’s lives through the work of award-winning photojournalist Barbara Grover. She traveled around the country interviewing people who are hungry, documenting their experiences in their own voices while photographing and videoing them. This traveling exhibit immerses us in the lives of people dealing with food insecurity by sharing their stories through photographs and recordings. Thousands of people will sit at this virtual table with these individuals as the exhibit travels across the country offering a unique demonstration of an often-invisible need in our society.
The exhibit, a 53-foot-long semitrailer that was on display at Temple Chai Jan. 2 and 3, brings Americans face to face with the struggles of those facing the pain and effects of hunger. It is on a 10-month national tour, stopping in more than 30 cities and putting faces and names to some of the many hungry people of all ages in this country.
A young child tells how he and his mother do not sleep well, due to the lack of food keeping them awake, which affects their days at school and work. No one notices, although his report card is not as good as it might be if he had proper nourishment. His mother struggles to keep her job, tired all the time, frightened that she might not perform to its standards, needing every dollar to pay rent and put some food on the table.
Eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which reaches millions of low-income households, they are aided by the $1.40 per person per meal that is provided for a limited time. By improving food security, health and other outcomes are significantly improved. This critical program that helps lifts families out of poverty, especially children, is currently under federal congressional consideration for budget reduction.)
Showing his sadness, a man in his late 40s, used to making close to $100,000, can’t get enough food to comfortably feed his family. Although they still live in their home, their bare bones budget is a painful change from the way of life enjoyed before his loss of employment. He shared his dismay at where his life is now. Going to food banks is not unusual, although neighbors do not know of their need.
A hard and steady worker all her life, we visit with a retiree trying to live on her small income, but keeping a roof over her head and the high cost of medication take most of her money. Food is not always available, but without adequate nourishment, her health problems will worsen. Without medication, her health is further endangered. Caught in a cycle that many people face, food security is one of the last issues she thought could affect her life. We may know her, but not know that she is hungry.
The exhibit was also a reminder that many people who live in our own cities often go hungry.
In a house I visited while writing grants for and later volunteering in the Murphy School District, the dirt floor of the small, two-bedroom house was swept smooth and clean and a small piece of linoleum was on the kitchen floor and a clean bath mat was on the floor of the children’s bedroom. The refrigerator was mostly empty and the three cabinets contain only part of a box of powdered milk mix. The children received breakfast and lunch at school during the week. The youngest child, not yet in school, was the first priority during the week for the parents.
Weekends presented a challenge, especially because one of the children was always hungry; his body was craving the nourishment to grow. When eligible for SNAP, the meal allowance was a welcome addition. Sometimes the school provided special weekend backpacks filled with basic foods for the children. Vacations and summers were another challenge, and some districts try to provide breakfasts or lunches.
This is one of many homes I visited in the district, bringing, food, clothing, bedding and special gifts for the children. It is only one of the many homes, including trailers, lacking enough food, insulation, heat or air conditioning. Teachers, synagogues, church and mosque members are among those who donate to funds, food banks and agencies to assist families.
The children at a Paradise Valley district school, which I also visited, refused to eat donated small snacks, saving them, along with small inexpensive gifts, to bring home to share with families. Amid gifts of new shoes, excitement brightened the room, providing the adults present with joy and sadness – sadness that this gift was so meaningful to the children. Since food and a place to live were priorities in their lives, new shoes were a dream. School districts throughout the state face similar issues.
Military bases have food banks, since frequent moves often prohibit spouses from obtaining jobs, and SNAP does not provide assistance since housing allowances count as income. To the surprise of many, veterans may not receive adequate pay to support their families.
We need to remedy this situation.
Cities and rural areas, including most reservations, are affected by food insecurity – rural areas often more than cities. Around 42.5 million Americans are hungry, more than one in eight people of all ages and ethnicities. One of these may be a neighbor, and we don’t know it.
There is much we can do to assist people, and the accompanying sidebar has more information about MAZON, as well as what we can do locally to help end hunger.
Jane Wabnik is a business and public issues consultant who serves on several advisory groups and interfaith councils. She is a member of Temple Chai.