Identifying a hungry person is almost impossible. People coping with food insecurity come in all shapes and sizes — an autoworker whose job has vanished, a senior citizen forced to choose between buying medicine or food, a single parent working two minimum-wage jobs, a woman who has faced a health catastrophe.
The number of people in the United States who struggle with hunger is 42.2 million, or more than one in eight people, including 13.1 million children and 5.7 million seniors, according to the Economic Research Service of the United States Department of Agriculture.
But these dire statistics and the suffering human beings they represent are unknown to most Americans because the immensity of the problem is hard to absorb, because hunger is not front and center in our news, and because it can be invisible within our communities.
Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, founded in 1985 with the aim of ending hunger among people of all faiths and backgrounds in the United States and Israel, decided to take the stark realities of the crisis on the road, literally, in a “big rig.” Traveling to 30 cities and towns across the United States, including six stops in New Jersey, the truck is a moving installation sharing the realities of food insecurity via graphics, storytelling, and hands-on activities. Visitors are invited to educate others and become advocates for social change.
At the end of March, the “This Is Hunger” truck appeared at two congregations in Greater MetroWest — from March 26 to 28 at Congregation Beth El in South Orange and from March 29 to April 1 at Temple Emanu-el in Westfield. The event was sponsored by the Community Relations Committee in partnership with MAZON and the two synagogues. The four other New Jersey stops include Cherry Hill, Lawrenceville, Teaneck, and New Milford.
Marni Gittleman was the lead content creator for “This Is Hunger”; she grew up at The Jewish Center in Princeton and her mother, Steffie Gittleman, remains a congregant there.
When Mazon representatives approached Gittleman with the idea for the project, they told her they had “stories of people across America who were brave enough to share their stories with our photojournalist, and we want to use those stories to engage Americans,” she said.
“At the beginning, I felt it was such a responsibility — how do we honor the subject, the topic, and invite in people’s hearts in a meaningful way. It’s not about statistics — we wanted people to have an experience,” said Gittleman.
With a degree in arts administration and museum education from Bank Street College of Education in New York, Gittleman has had a long career in museum work, starting with children’s museums in Manhattan and Boston. Since then she has worked for Disney, schools in Los Angeles, and such cultural institutions as the Getty Museum, Skirball Cultural Center, and Los Angeles County Museum of Art in California; the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan; and the Stepping Stones Museum in Connecticut.
The immersive “This Is Hunger” experience begins in the dark. As visitors sit around a table in silence, “plates” are projected onto it, a single half-tomato on each one; then the plates begin to disappear — a little food and then it’s gone. Next the stories begin on screens at each end of the long table: of a woman who worked all her life and finds herself as a retiree with no means of buying food, of a child who can’t concentrate in school because he is hungry, and of the woman who paid $2.89 for a box of tomatoes and cut each one in half so they would last through the week.
After the 14-minute video presentation, visitors are invited to explore the exhibit. In one activity, participants try to create an
affordable meal from a list of vegetables, grains, fruits, proteins, and dairy products. They discover it is impossible to create a satisfying and nutritional meal from the $1.40 per person, per meal, provided by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP (aka food stamps).
Visitors also have an opportunity to learn from infographics on the wall among photos of people who do not have enough to eat. One little-known fact is that food pantries are operating on or near every Navy and Marine base in the United States, and that one in four veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars faces food insecurity, which is defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as lacking access, at all times, to enough food for an active, healthy life.
Ross Wishnick, a member of the Jewish Center and chair of the Princeton Human Services Commission, toured the exhibit and attested to the presence of hunger in central Jersey. He helped found Send Hunger Packing Princeton, which provides child-friendly supplemental weekend food to families with school-age children. Wishnick estimates that on average, two children in every Princeton classroom are food insecure, adding up to about 450 in the whole system. Send Hunger Packing provided 75,000 supplemental meals in the last four years.
Lara Wellerstein, director of community programs and services at Jewish Family & Children’s Service, oversees the agency’s food bank, which serves about 90 families, representing about 325 individuals. Using the food pantry, she said, allows people to use their limited funds for utilities and rent. The pantry has regular clients, and people can also come in on an emergency basis if they need food.
The food pantry provides healthy foods, including protein-rich items, fresh produce, and dairy products. People who are food insecure “want to have access to those same foods” that others eat, said Wellerstein.
“It could be a person you’re in school with, or sitting on the bus next to you, who may appear that they don’t need a food pantry — but the dad may have lost his job, the mom might have health issues, and they have now found themselves in a place where they just cannot make ends meet.”