‘Hunger’: Addressing an everyday problem in the U.S.

August 24, 2016

In 1997, a woman named Molly found a note tacked to the door of her $3 million house in a wealthy suburb of Detroit. The notice informed her that her home was going to be sold off at auction in just 30 days.

It turned out that her husband had stopped paying the mortgage, sold all the couple’s assets and sunk money into a business deal that had bankrupted the family. 

Molly divorced her husband and secured modest jobs to support herself and her children, then had to stop working after being diagnosed with breast cancer. Neighbors brought over food while she was undergoing chemotherapy. But when the treatments concluded, Molly was left with no job and no income to feed her family.

One day she found herself standing outside a supermarket with less than $2 in her pocket, hungry and crying because she didn’t know what she could possibly buy with that paltry sum. She was embarrassed when a neighbor saw her and suggested she visit a local food bank; in better days, Molly had donated to such charities and never imagined that she would need one herself. But she swallowed her pride and began frequenting the agency, even though, on one occasion, she recognized some of the volunteers as parents from her children’s school and promptly left.

“She went through this horrible emotional turmoil,” said Barbara Grover, the photographer who snapped Molly’s picture and recorded an interview with her for an upcoming multimedia touring exhibition, “This Is Hunger,” currently in development by the nonprofit MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger (mazon.org). In the portrait, the former cancer patient radiates melancholy, wearing what appears to be a designer suit from better days.

Photographer Barbara Grover. Photo courtesy of Scarlet Works

Molly is one of some 70 individuals suffering food insecurity that Grover photographed and interviewed around the United States. The portraits and first-person narratives create a surprising, intimate image of hunger in this country, showing that it could be happening to anyone, anywhere. MAZON’s educational, interactive exhibition will travel the country, displayed inside a specially designed trailer of a big-rig truck, launching its tour in Los Angeles from Nov. 16-Dec. 18. 

“It’s a unique, engaging and empowering approach to exposing [people] … to the true experience of hunger in the United States,” Abby J. Leibman, MAZON’s president and CEO, wrote in an email. The show’s message is intended to raise awareness among MAZON’s synagogue partners and other organizations, as well as to help build new partnerships throughout the country. “We hope to educate and activate our partners to work together with us to make meaningful policy change that will help to end hunger in the United States,” Leibman said.

Grover found a number of her subjects at trailer homes and at soup kitchens, food pantries and other centers where people go for help. She met with them in Jackson, Miss.; rural Montana; on a Native American reservation in Arizona and elsewhere. Shooting with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II, she captured an image of a retired teacher who had moved in with her son and his family but had to work cleaning motel rooms so the household could — barely — make ends meet. Other subjects include a woman caring for three grandchildren whose parents were struggling with issues such as addiction and incarceration; a couple who survived a harsh Tennessee winter in their car even while the woman was in the late months of pregnancy; and a former automotive worker who lost his job when his company took its business overseas.

“I’ve had grown men break down and cry in front of me,” Grover said during an interview at her Silver Lake home, which displays some of the photographs she has taken in some 40 countries over the years. “A lot of these people just had their lives fall apart — not because of anything they did, but because of what was imposed on them.”

The downward spiral into food insecurity often begins with traumatic life events, like illness or divorce, then becomes exacerbated by a complicated welfare system that can seem insurmountable to navigate, Grover said. If a person makes even $1 more than the threshold allowed for government assistance, for example, the benefits will stop. “It’s hard enough for people to go to these [welfare] offices because of shame,” Grover said.

During her travels, Grover said, “I saw a lot of empty refrigerators … and most of the people didn’t get enough food to feel sated during the day.”

“Among [interviewees] who went to food banks, I saw a lot of substandard food they had to survive on. Ramen is the national food of those who make a certain income, because it’s cheap and it’s filling.” And in areas where convenience stores offer the only groceries around, Grover found families subsisting on empty calories, such as tortillas and Cheez Whiz. “They were eating food that made them feel bad,” she said.

When MAZON’s Leibman asked Grover to sign on to the project about six years ago, the photographer was immediately drawn to the proposed exhibition’s emphasis on education and advocacy. From her early childhood in a Jewish family in Van Nuys, Grover said, “I tried to fight for the underdog.” While in her mid-teens, Grover took the bus around Los Angeles for a school project, capturing stories of immigrants with her Polaroid camera and tape recorder. “I wanted to give them a voice,” she said. “I felt people didn’t really understand what they were going through.”

Early in her career, she worked as a political consultant, then, in the 1990s, she became a full-time photojournalist, often sharing the stories of marginalized people. She won the prestigious Ernst Haas award for her images of the Los Angeles riots, and her work has been published in periodicals from Time magazine to Stern. Today, Grover primarily shoots for nonprofits and international humanitarian organizations, including the Jerusalem Foundation and Whole Child International.

Along the way, she has created exhibitions such as “This Land to Me — Some Call it Palestine, Others Israel,” focused on Jews and Arabs in locations as diverse as refugee camps and at the Western Wall. For her multimedia piece “The Women of Iridimi,” she photographed the everyday lives of refugees who had escaped the genocide in Darfur.

It was that body of work, made with the nonprofit Jewish World Watch, that captured Leibman’s attention when she first envisioned the “This Is Hunger” exhibition some years ago. “Barbara Grover was well known to us from her work in using photojournalism to advance Jewish social justice efforts,” Leibman said. “In particular, her powerful work with Jewish World Watch in bringing to life the tragic circumstances of the refugees from the genocide in Darfur, Sudan, made her the ideal choice. … Barbara has a remarkable way of making her subjects comfortable enough to share deeply personal and vitally important stories; her camera is able to capture the nuanced emotional reactions of her subjects that draws the viewer in and creates a real connection between the subject and viewer.”

With Leibman’s help, Grover contacted groups that help the hungry in about nine regions across the United States. But the interviews didn’t come easily. Many of the organizations were protective of their clients or did not know their names and addresses. 

“So I would land somewhere and go looking at school feeding programs or where people would sign up for food stamps,” Grover said. “I would go anywhere and everywhere. I would just show up.” Her persistence paid off; she succeeded in persuading some 70 people to sit for multi-hour interviews, as well as allow her to shoot their portraits. “They instilled tremendous trust in me as they unveiled some of the most private and humiliating things in their lives,” said Grover, who took a total of 1,334 pictures for the project.

One portion of her work focuses on food insecurity among people serving in the military and their families, spurred by a MAZON project to throw light on the hidden trials of this largely unknown population-in-need. In San Diego, Grover met Ashley, whose husband is a petty officer on a Navy warship. “A full-time clerk at Taco Bell makes more than my husband,” Grover was told by Ashley, who has a young daughter with her husband, and, at the time, was pregnant with her second child.

Ashley with her husband and daughter in their yard in San Diego. Photo by Barbara Grover

When Ashley’s husband joined the military, she said, “I didn’t think it was going to be all sunsets and roses, but I didn’t expect that we’d have to eat Ramen seven nights a week because that’s what we could afford.” The family’s income is $100 per month above the limit to qualify for food stamps. In one photo, the pregnant Ashley stoically sorts through the cans of SpagettiOs, boxes of sweet cereal and other less-than-healthy staples she had gotten from a local food bank.

When another professional photographer viewed Grover’s work for MAZON, “his initial reaction was, ‘This project has a real problem: These people don’t look hungry,’ ” Grover recalled. “I looked at him and said, ‘That’s exactly the point. Hunger is everywhere, and it can be hidden… It can be your neighbor, your sister; it could be you or me.’” 

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