This weekend, members of the community will have the opportunity to experience a traveling interactive exhibit at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation that will address the issue of hunger in America and provide participants a way to engage the issue firsthand.
“This Is Hunger” is a multimedia exhibit contained in a 53-foot trailer that is currently touring the country. Organized by MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, a California-based, anti-hunger advocacy group, the exhibit will be in Baltimore Feb. 24-28 as part of its 17-stop tour.
“This Is Hunger” began more than five years ago when MAZON commissioned Barbara Grover, a photojournalist, to travel the United States to document the reality of hunger in America.
“What she captured was so compelling and important,” said Abby Liebman, president and CEO of MAZON. “We knew that we had the fundamental elements of an incredible tool that would not only help us raise awareness about the hidden problem of hunger in America, but also to re- inspire the American Jewish community to join our effort to end hunger in America.”
Grover, in documenting this reality of hunger, traveled to cities, visiting food kitchens and talking to people on the streets who were clearly struggling. Her aim was to find people willing to share their stories and to give a voice to a population that is rarely heard by the general public.
“My work illuminates economic and social problems just through photographs and words,” said Grover. “Most of the work that I do is not just to get people to think differently, but to act differently too. It is an opportunity to meet face to face and see and hear and learn from people who are struggling with an issue that affects people across America — it unravels the who and why.”
With hunger across America documented, the next step was to find a medium through which to relate the issue. Marni Gittleman was brought onto the team just over three years ago to serve as the principal concept and content developer of the project.
“I was brought on to bring the faces and stories of hunger and food insecurity together to create some type of an experience that would help to educate the general public and provide an experience in which they would learn about hunger in America and to actively engage them in taking steps to make a difference to end hunger,” she said.
Gittleman outlined the basics of the exhibit, explaining that it is a two-part facilitated experience in which approximately 30 people participate together over the course of 45 minutes. The first part of the program is designated as “Illuminate.” Participants are greeted and take a seat at a communal table and the lights are dimmed.
“In the process of developing the experience, we very much wanted to engage people in types of daily activities,” explained Gittleman. “At the heart of so much of this is what centers around the table — sharing a meal and a conversation. That’s where we wanted to begin the journey for people.”
At the table a 12-to-15-minute multimedia show engages the audience with subjects who have experienced hunger and were interviewed by Grover. The audience hears from them in their own voices about their struggles with hunger. Subjects appear at either end of the table via projection “so it is as though we are all sitting together,” said Gittleman.
Statistics are displayed on the table: 43.5 million Americans struggle with hunger, approximately one in eight people. As the statistics are revealed, the side walls of the trailer begin to illuminate toward the end of the experience.
“Portrait by portrait, new faces begin to be exposed, so by the end, you are literally surrounded by upwards of 70 more individuals who have shared their stories,” said Gittleman. “When you enter, it is very quiet and dimly lit; there is no evidence of anything on side walls until near the end of the experience.”
The second part of experience occurs when the walls are lit , which is referred to as “Advocate.” This encourages participants to engage a little deeper.
For example, people are challenged to plan a meal working with a budget of the national SNAP (supplemental nutrition assistance program, officially known as food stamps) average to see what it’s actually like to plan a meal for an individual or family. According to Gittleman, that amount is $1.40 per individual per meal. Additionally, there are up-to-the-minute petitions that people can sign to send immediate feedback to their representatives and to “get on board with more systemic change.”
According to Michelle Stuffmann, director of outreach and communications for MAZON, the Jewish community has disproportionate influence in many of the communities where hunger exists.
“We have an obligation, individually and collectively, to try to make the world a better place and care for the most vulnerable among us according to our fundamental teachings as Jews,” she said. “So it is very important to get the Jewish community involved.”