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Hunger Through My Lens

Hunger Through My Lens

Nearly 1 in 7 Coloradans struggle with hunger, facing times when there
is not enough money to buy food.

"Without A Trace" by Caroline Pooler

"Without A Trace" by Caroline Poolergle

University of Denver Museum of Anthropology
Professor Esteban M. Gómez
Interim Director of Museum & Heritage Studies
Department of Anthropology

 

On our nation's richest farm lands, farmers grow corn and soybeans to feed livestock, produce cooking oil, and make sweeteners. Yet, there are millions of working Americans who do not know where their next meal is coming from. In our very own Centennial State, one in seven Coloradans struggle with hunger, living with the everyday reality of not having enough money to buy food. Our current exhibition, Hunger Through My Lens is a photovoice project that explores hunger in the Denver metro area. The participation of fifteen women, who come from all walks of life, are the everyday experts who form the basis of this project. Sponsored by the non-profit organization Hunger Free Colorado, Hunger Through My Lens is designed to provide a platform for Coloradans to share their stories, each giving different faces to the same statistic: one-sixth of Americans do not have enough food to eat.

The New Faces of Hunger

Chances are good that if you picture what hunger looks like, you don't summon an image of someone like Robin Dickinson: white, married, educated, and a family physician. Robin founded and runs Community Supported Common Medicine, a practice she designed to be a health care safety net for individuals and families that have limited access to medical care. Like other participants of the Hunger Through My Lens project, Robin is educated, and has a B.S. from the University of Denver, and M.D. from the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center.

The photographs that make up "Hunger Through My Lens" are just as diverse as the participants. One of the participants is a former paralegal with autism, while another women is HIV-positive and has struggled with recurring homelessness. A fourth participant recently withdrew from government assistance and is now an executive director of a non-profit organization in the Denver metro area. The image of hunger in America today differs markedly from Depression-era images of the gaunt-faced unemployed scavenging for food on urban streets. This is not your grandparent's hunger. Today more working people and their families are hungry because wages have declined, while the costs of living have risen.

It has now been a decade since the U.S. government replaced "hunger" with "food insecure" to describe any household where individuals and families don't have enough food to eat. No matter what term you use, the number of people who go hungry on a day-to-day basis has risen dramatically, increasing to 48 million in 2014 - a jump of more than 50 percent since the late 1990s. According to data provided by the non-profit Feeding America, 14 percent of households like Robin's experience food insecurity. While data for 2015 is still being compiled, 61 percent of food-insecure households in 2014, participated in at least one of the three major federal food assistance programs - Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP-formerly Food Stamp Program), The National School Lunch Program (NSLP), and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).

Hunger Has A New Home

As the face of hunger has changed, so has its domain. Food insecurity exists in every county in America, ranging from a low of 4 percent in Slope County, North Dakota to a high of 33 percent in Humphreys County, Mississippi. The suburbs used to represent the American dream, but now they serve as the front lines to the rising food insecurities in Colorado, and the rest of the country. Hunger is growing faster in the suburbs than in cities, having more than doubled since 2007. As urban living has become more expensive, the working poor have been displaced to suburban sprawls, where cars are a necessity, and not a luxury.

"November: SNAP cuts and Garden Frozen" by Robin Dickinson

"November: SNAP cuts and Garden Frozen" by Robin Dickinson

Thousands of people in the Denver metro area, and other urban sprawls across the country, live in food deserts, or areas devoid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful foods, usually found in impoverished areas. In many neighborhoods, it is all too convenient to buy fast food and soda, but it is nearly impossible to find grocery stores with fresh produce, farmers' markets, and other healthy food providers. Convenience markets with sweet and salty snacks are frequently the main dietary source for residents of low-income, inner-city and suburban neighborhoods. Likewise, rural residents often can only purchase packaged foods with poor nutritional value, even after traveling 35 miles to a general store.

While there are seemingly few similarities between the lifestyles of those who live in Denver's most impoverished neighborhoods, and those who make the San Luis Valley their home, they do share one unfortunate reality: limited access to nutritious, healthy, unprocessed foods such as produce, whole grains, and low-fat dairy. This is best represented in Caroline Pooler's "Reversed Disparity," where disparate areas are short on whole food providers, but glutted with local quickie marts that provide a wealth of processed, sugar, and fat laden foods that are known contributors to our nation's obesity epidemic. In the photograph, two photos of bananas are placed side-by-side. According to Pooler, the bananas on the left were found "in a large, chain supermarket in a nice neighborhood." The over-ripe bananas, on the other hand, were more expensive, and found in a "corner bodega in a low-income neighborhood." For Pooler, it's practically impossible to eat healthy foods at a reasonable cost.

Across the United States, the health impacts and geographic extent of food deserts are gaining increased attention. Many chronic diseases have been associated with low consumption of fruits and vegetables, along with high consumption of sugary and high-fat foods. These factors, in tandem with the lack of education on healthy eating and a dearth of exercise opportunities common in food deserts, are taking a documented toll on the health of those who do not have convenient access to a grocery store, or healthy foods that are reasonably affordable.

Can a Photovoice Model Change our Perceptions of Hunger?

How might museums collaborate with non-profits like Hunger Free Colorado to promote social justice and engender support for human rights to healthy foods? More specifically, how are museums engaging with and responding to claims to cultural access and demands for more equitable forms of representation by diverse communities? The photographs that make up Hunger Through My Lens address these questions, interrogating and problematizing the core issues surrounding hunger from the perspectives of the experts who live the everyday realities of hunger, food desserts, and having to wait in lines for food at soup kitchens, and food banks. A primary goal behind the project is to empower marginalized communities, by providing them a voice to share their struggles through a photo exhibition of their experiences.

Hunger Through My Lens is a photovoice advocacy project sponsored by Hunger Free Colorado. The project is designed to shed light on the reality of hunger in the Denver metro area by providing women digital cameras to document their experiences. The project simultaneously provides the women an opportunity to express themselves through an artistic medium. At its core, the photovoice model combines digital photography with grassroots social action. In Hunger Through My Lens, participants were tasked with the challenge of expressing their struggles with hunger by photographing scenarios that highlighted the impacts of hunger on individuals, families and communities throughout Colorado.

"Reversed Disparity" by Caroline Pooler

"Reversed Disparity" by Caroline Pooler

Hunger Through My Lens opened on January 28, and will run until March 11, 2016. A traveling exhibit can also be seen at different locations around the Denver metro area. Policy makers and stakeholders are encouraged to view the traveling exhibit, and to engage in critical dialogue on issues related to food insecurity in Denver. You can also sign a letter drafted to our state legislators at the Hunger Through My Lens exhibition in the Museum of Anthropology gallery space in Sturm Hall. The University of Denver Museum of Anthropology will also be hosting a panel discussion Right to Food on the February 18 in Sturm Hall, room 254. The panel discussion will include faculty and students from the University of Denver, as well as representatives from Hunger Free Colorado, Metro Caring, and Ekar Farms.

One of the strengths behind projects like Hunger Through My Lens is the opportunity for marginalized communities to articulate their concerns using their own words and creative endeavors. It is our belief that more projects like this are needed to fully address the social issues that plague our local communities.