October 13, 2019

The right vehicle to spread their message about hunger

This is hunger. 

It’s written in bold, black letters on the side of a massive, custom-made 18-wheeler that will travel cross-country over the next 10 months to spread a message about the prevalence of hunger in the United States. It will make stops in cities like San Francisco, Chicago and New York — but first, it’s in Los Angeles, visiting local synagogues, colleges and community centers through Dec. 18. 

Although the truck’s exterior is a statement piece in itself, the real exhibition, called “This Is Hunger,” lies inside, free and open to the public. When visitors enter the 53-foot-long big rig — commissioned by nonprofit MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger — they are greeted by a long wooden table and 30 wooden chairs. 

“Essentially, we thought that sitting at a shared table was really the most natural thing to do,” said creative director and content developer Marni Gittleman. 

At first glance, it looks like an empty dinner table, but once patrons fill up the seats, the room darkens and a 14-minute film commences. The movie is a product of artist Barbara Grover’s on-the-road documentation of Americans struggling with hunger, which took years to collect. 

“Initially, I was photographing and interviewing people and not really sure what would come of it, but I knew I had to capture their voices,” Grover told the Journal. “I would go into the homes of strangers and they would sit down and they would tell me things they’re embarrassed to tell their friends. And they trusted me enough to know that I would use their words with integrity and respect and dignity. And that’s big.” 

The result is a starkly intimate series of portraits and narrations. Faces are projected onto screens at either end of the table, so it’s as if they, too, are sitting there. They are young and old, Black and white. They say things like, “We have to make the food last,” and “Don’t ever think this can’t happen to you.” At the
end of the film, the question is projected onto the table in hand-written script: “Will you be the change?” 

The film is just one aspect of the exhibition. Gittleman said it can be divided into two acts: “the shared table experience” and the active engagement experience. The latter, she said, is “where you can sign a petition, where you can take a social media selfie to get the message out there, where you can sign up for the MAZON mailing list, and where you can immerse yourself in the challenge of planning a meal for $1.40 [the national Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) average benefit per meal].” 

Designed by members of the creative team that developed Noah’s Ark at the Skirball Cultural Center, the entire exhibition in the truck lasts 45 minutes. It was the job of Gittleman, who worked on Noah’s Ark, to organize the content into one cohesive experience. 

“I inherited a collection of photographs and very personal stories that we had to curate into a conversation,” she said. “I think the key to this design was actually the simplicity.” 

Gittleman said she and her creative team wanted the content to do the talking: “We wanted the people to speak for themselves.” 

Abby Leibman, president and CEO of MAZON, added, “We don’t really think about it as an art exhibition. It’s really using photography and storytelling to bring social justice into the world. I don’t know what to call it, but it’s some cross between social justice, activism and art.”

Over the past three years, MAZON has been working on this particular project, investing approximately $1.7 million to get the show up and rolling. Originally, MAZON wanted “This Is Hunger” to be a traveling exhibition that was shipped, installed and taken down at different venues. 

“But when we really started thinking about the goal and how we were wanting to rally America, we thought maybe there’s a way we can combine the transport system, the venue and the exhibit,” Gittleman said. So they customized and built a trailer from scratch.

The exhibition launched on Nov. 16 at Smashbox Studios in Culver City and continued its tour the next day, stopping at Temple Israel of Hollywood. Future stops in the Los Angeles area include Santa Monica College (Nov. 23 to Dec. 1) and Temple Judea in Tarzana (Dec. 2-6), then University Synagogue in Irvine, Agoura Hills/Calabasas Community Center and Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills. 

For Grover, who had promised her interviewees that their voices would be heard, seeing the exhibition-on-wheels come to fruition meant something very profound. “For me, it’s fulfilling this promise I made to these people that they would be speaking to America.”

MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger’s “This Is Hunger” exhibition will be in the greater Los Angeles area through Dec. 18. For tickets and information, visit