Interactive art exhibit asks participants to engage with stories of Americans who don’t have enough food
By Christina Campodonico
This time of year, the dinner table may call to mind rosy memories of Thanksgivings past — a large turkey with stuffing, potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce and green bean casserole, lively conversation, full friends and sated family.
But for many — 42.2 million Americans who struggle with food insecurity, according to the nonprofit Feeding America network — the dinner table may be a forbidding place, a reminder of hunger pangs rather than full bellies.
When you enter “This is Hunger,” a mobile art exhibit that’s parked at Santa Monica College through Dec. 1, the table before you is noticeably empty. White spotlights the size of dinner plates shine onto the table, where you take a seat and listen to the voices of Americans from across the country talking about their struggles against poverty and hunger.
A boy named Dylan says he can’t sleep at night because he’s so hungry.
An elderly woman tells us how she tries to make a small bunch of tomatoes last as long as she can by slicing them ultra-thin.
Another woman, just retired, reminisces about a time when food was plentiful in her life; now it’s scarce.
The faces of these speakers slowly pop up and fade away at either end of the table, like apparitions telling a haunting ghost tale.
But these stories are all too real for countless Americans, as exhibition photographer Barbara Grover documented in photos and interviews for the exhibit commissioned by the Jewish anti-hunger advocacy group MAZON. For the project, Grover interviewed more than 70 people facing food insecurity during various trips around the country, from the Deep South to Southern California.
“I spent hours with these people. And they would bare their deepest secrets, and they would tell me things they wouldn’t tell their friends or family,” said Grover. “And that’s really hard to do when you’re hungry, you’re trying to get a job, you’re trying to feed your family, and you’re trying to find an internet connection because that’s the only way you can apply for a job or look for a job.”
To help people understand these struggles, MAZON’s executive and creative teams partnered up to develop interactive exercises, such as a paper placemat that asks visitors to plan a family meal for four on a S.N.A.P. (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) or food stamp budget. That’s $5.60.
I tried the exercise six times at home and only once was able to assemble a balanced meal under budget: kale, some white bread, a banana, beans and milk. The foods I love — strawberries, broccoli, quinoa, salmon — were simply out of reach. The white spotlights on the table came to mind. They not only seemed to symbolize empty dinner plates, but also the holes that seem to form in your stomach when you’ve gone a long time without a filling meal. My stomach started to twist with concern.
MAZON CEO and President Abby Leibman hopes that the exhibit will encourage visitors to respond to the issue of hunger not just with sympathy, but also with action.
“The activity of being moved by voices and images is important,” said Leibman. “But without action, it’s just compassion. We’re looking for a real commitment to change.”
Which visitors can do by signing an online petition to protect S.N.A.P. benefits from being defunded by the federal government at one of the iPads in the exhibition, snapping a social justice-themed selfie of themselves in a room filled with quotes from the interviewees, or writing their reflections on cards. These activities, after sitting at that empty table, make for an intimate and reflective experience.
“We wanted to create a scenario in which everyone can be brought to the table,” said “This is Hunger” creative director and content developer Marni Gittleman, who also designed the award-winning Noah’s Ark exhibition at the Skirball Cultural Center. “We hope when you return to your table at home, you will remember this experience in some way.”
Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl hosted the debut of “This is Hunger” on Nov. 16 at Smashbox Studios in Culver City. She hopes the interactive exhibit’s circulation in Southern California over the next three weeks before heading off on a national tour will help shed a light on those who are “not at the table” of America’s bounty, suffering silently against the challenges of food insecurity.
“Hunger is such a hidden problem in America,” said Kuehl. “It’s important to experience these voices and these faces from all around the United States that otherwise you would not know. … It also helps you appreciate the issue of food itself. I can’t tell you how many breaths I’ve taken in my life or how many times my heart has beat, and I can’t tell you how many meals I’ve had or that I even think about the fact that I wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for food. I just don’t think about it. This exhibit helps you think about it. And anything that helps us appreciate what we have, as well as what others don’t have, I think is very important.”
“This is Hunger” is at Santa Monica College from Nov. 23 to Dec. 1. The exhibit is free, but an RSVP is required, and space is limited to 30 people for each 45 minute exhibition tour. Reserve a space at thisishunger.org/the-tour.