Photos Up, Boots on the Ground: Witnesses to Hunger Talk Poverty and Policy in New Haven
On an early September evening, the Witnesses to Hunger exhibit in New Haven, CT opened to a crowd of about sixty people. The exhibit, held in City Hall, featured 28 photographs from members of Witnesses to Hunger and twelve never-before-seen photos taken by community members who took pictures and provided commentary on the reality of hunger and poverty in the New Haven area.
Despite its location in the wealthiest state in the country, New Haven knows the experience of hunger and poverty all too well. New Haven County has the highest food insecurity rate in the state, with 40% of residents in New Haven’s lowest income neighborhoods currently living in food insecure homes, meaning they do not have access to enough food to live an active and healthful life. As is the case throughout the country, New Haven’s children are not buffered from food insecurity – 31% of New Haven public school seventh graders reported some level of food insecurity last school year. Unfortunately, New Haven is home to too many experts who know firsthand what it is like to live with hunger and in poverty.
Kimberly Hart, one of the New Haven photographers and active member of the New Haven Food Policy Council, shared her own struggles with feeding her family on a limited income. She took a photo of her son at dinner. She said of the photo, “This captures what my struggle is at the end of the month. He wishes he had meat. There’s no smile, but he’s grateful – he knows there are others who have it worse.”
Kim’s other photos, on display at the Witnesses to Hunger exhibit, continue to reflect this ongoing, and community-wide, uphill battle to provide for one’s family. Miracle Brown, another photographer, agreed, pointing out that, “everyone is struggling” in her neighborhood.
Hosted by Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro and Mayor Toni Harp, the exhibit’s opening reception commenced an evening of inclusive collaboration and dialogue around the issue of food insecurity in our communities. After passionate remarks from the Mayor and Congresswoman, the reception concluded with the stirring words of photographer Jo-Ann Ndiaye, describing her struggle with making her SNAP benefits last, and how she looks for innovative ways to make ends meet.
“My vegetable garden helps me budget my SNAP benefits,” she spoke in the atrium of City Hall. “Any excess vegetables from my garden I give to my local pantry, because I know it’s hard to get fresh produce in low-income communities.”
Inspired by the sentiments and photographs from the New Haven photographers and Witnesses to Hunger, we moved from the reception to the home of Congresswoman DeLauro. In an effort to bring together city, state, and federal policymakers, faith-based organizations, community research and advocacy agencies, and people with firsthand experience with hunger and poverty, the living room overflowed with passionate advocates, primarily from the New Haven area, who were looking to create a real plan for real change.
In that room, the old saying rang true – all politics is local. Representatives from all levels of government and from each corner of the community gathered to voice their concerns about an issue of national scale. An issue the Congresswoman and all those in the room know could begin to be confronted by harnessing the power of the community into local, on-the-ground efforts to address food insecurity.
“I applaud everyone here tonight for starting the conversation,” Witnesses to Hunger member Tianna Gaines-Turner said during the event. “We’ve got our boots on the ground, and we need to continue to bring the pieces of the puzzle together. Because we can’t just look at hunger alone. It’s so much more than that.”
Congresswoman DeLauro echoed Tianna’s call.
“We need systematic change, a real plan that looks at more than the individual issues, but at the root causes.”
Other attendees of the discussion supported this sentiment.
We need not be so bureaucratic and stiff – we must remember the humans at the core of this,” Reverend Bonita Grubbs, Executive Director of the Christian Community Action, Inc., said. “This isn’t a plan, this is an imperative – to make sure we build something that actually helps.”
Joanna Cruz, another member of Witnesses to Hunger present at the discussion, offered her advice to the room on how to reach the goals and policy implementations the group hoped to achieve.
“I depend on food banks because SNAP cuts have hit me hard,” Cruz shared. “Though I’m a full-time worker, my minimum wages don’t cover the needs for my family. Until we get the ball rolling and raise the wage and help families with strong policies, we should remember to think about what we can do right now to affect families on a daily basis. ”
For over an hour, the conversation continued, full of reflection and determination. Jeannette Ickovics, director of Yale’s CARE: Community Alliance for Research and Engagement, offered a hopeful conclusion to the evening’s efforts by looking at New Haven and its partners as the right community to investigate some of these ideas.
“We should think of New Haven as an incubator,” Ickovics said. “If you don’t start someplace, you just think about how impossible it can be to get to where you want to go.”
It was clear that the people of New Haven are committed to making this important first step in thinking creatively and proactively about ending hunger in Connecticut, and in the nation as a whole. From the passionate leadership of Congresswoman DeLauro on the federal level, to Kim, Jo-Ann, and Miracle, the three new Witnesses advocating in their New Haven community, there is no doubt they have the tools, and the will, to succeed.
-- Lili Dodderidge