When Americans conjure up images of domestic hunger, they often think of Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother,” believing hunger in America to be a relic of the Great Depression. The non-profit advocacy group MAZON hopes to counter this myth through a new traveling exhibit entitled “This is Hunger” that invites participants to sit across a dinner table from one of the many faces of hunger in America today.
Lisa Adler, coordinator of Community Engagement & Volunteers at Jewish Family & Children’s Services (JFCS) of Greater Mercer County, New Jersey, invited me to attend a tour of MAZON’s exhibit on wheels, which had currently taken up residence at Adath Israel Congregation in Lawrenceville. Ironically, as I pulled into the parking lot, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings were singing “People Don’t Get What They Deserve.” It was a timely reminder that I kept hearing as I viewed photographs depicting Americans suffering from a form of hunger known as food insecurity—the lack of good quality food in ample quantity.
Educator Marni Gittleman curated the exhibit that is traveling the country through October. A bright and passionate woman who views art as a form of social activism, Gittleman emphasized that her goal with the exhibit is to honor the individuals photographed and create an environment for safe, conducive conversation. This is why a farmhouse-style dining table acts as the exhibit’s focal point. “What is a kitchen table but the place where you eat, pay bills, sit together, live life,” she observed.
“We wanted to give participants a feeling that would resonate after they left. The hope is that when they go home and sit down to a meal they’ll remember the experience of sitting at our table.” It’s a powerful experience, indeed. Using specialized technology, guests at the table are introduced to America’s stories of hunger through the format of a mealtime discussion. The plates projected onto the table, however, remain empty.
MAZON primarily works with elected officials to create systemic change in order to address hunger. According to 2015 statistics, 42.2 million Americans suffer from hunger. Seventy percent of them live in families with children. More than 25 percent are seniors. Because hunger in America often manifests in the form of food insecurity, most who suffer, including those photographed by MAZON, experience the effects of a poor diet: obesity, heart disease, high cholesterol, exhaustion to name only a few.
Local Hebrew high schoolers from Temple Micah who were in attendance were given the challenge of creating a healthy menu on the average SNAP budget of $1.41 per meal. It only took them a few minutes to learn why hungry people on a budget opt for quantity over quality, often choosing cheap, filling food instead of less filling, more nutritious options.
The students were one of many local Jewish groups who came to tour the exhibit during its 3-day stay. JFCS Executive Director Michelle Napell hoped that the exhibit would shed light on the fact that hunger hides in plain sight, even in the suburbs of Princeton. “People think hunger can’t happen here, but as the exhibit explains, it’s a virtue of circumstance.” Napell noted that in the Greater Mercer County area seniors continue to be the most vulnerable population. This is why her organization is currently pursuing funding for a “Healthy at Home” mobile pantry that would extend their food pantry’s reach to elderly citizens who are isolated and/or homebound.
For MAZON, feeding the hungry is clearly a Jewish calling. Above the photographs reads a straightforward quote from Pirkei Avot: “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.” A hardcover book containing biographies of individuals featured in the exhibit had Proverbs 31:8-9 emblazoned on the cover: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” When asked what is Jewish about “This Is Hunger,” Michelle Stuffman, director of Outreach & Communications for MAZON replied,
There are many connections between Jewish liturgy and working to end hunger. Perhaps most familiar comes from the Passover seder when we proclaim, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” Much like the Maggid, it tells a compelling story. It reminds us to be mindful of the poor and the stranger, and that we are commanded to help where there is need.
For more information on “This is Hunger,” including a full list of tour dates, click here.