A new photography exhibition in Pierson College seeks to raise awareness of hunger in New Haven through art.
“Witnesses to Hunger,” which opened last night, was organized by the college in partnership with the New Haven Food Policy Council’s Food Assistance Working Group. Previously on display at City Hall, the show brings together photographs by Jo-Ann Ndiaye, Kimberly Hart and Miracle Brown, three New Haven residents who documented their struggles with food insecurity and reductions in federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, often colloquially referred to as “food stamps.”
“These are photographers highlighting some of the difficulties New Haveners face,” said Pierson College Master Stephen Davis. “It can certainly bring attention to some of these issues and reflectiveness about … how we prepare and eat food and how we [might] work towards more inclusivity when it comes to food access.”
Billy Bromage, a member of the New Haven Food Assistance Working Group of the New Haven Food Policy Council, said the “Witnesses to Hunger” project was launched in 2008 at the Drexel University School of Public Health’s Hunger-Free Community Center. The project has since grown to include communities across the nation, including Boston, Baltimore and Camden, New Jersey.
Mariana Chilton, who founded “Witnesses,” said the initiative began as a participatory study designed to give low-income parents a voice in the national discussion on hunger and food insecurity.
“I wanted to make sure that the parents who know hunger and poverty firsthand could speak directly to the press, to elected officials and to the public,” Chilton said.
Bromage explained that the concept was brought to New Haven with the help of Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, the U.S. Representative for Connecticut’s Third District, who saw a “Witnesses to Hunger” exhibition in Washington, D.C. As a longtime champion of hunger issues, he added, DeLauro wanted to see if a similar show could be organized in her district.
The Pierson exhibit includes a dozen photographs, which adorn the walls outside of the college’s dining hall. One image, “Budget Journey,” features a trio of receipts from a West Haven ShopRite, Walmart and Aldi Store #63 on Sawmill Road. Another photograph, titled “Why Do I Have to Choose ‘To Eat or Not to Eat’ a PB+J Sandwich?,” shows the contents of Hart’s kitchen “three days before [her] benefits hit,” which included a packet of chicken-flavor Ramen noodles and a partially used jar of Welch’s grape jelly.
“At first, I didn’t want to [participate in “Witnesses to Hunger”], because I’m a very private person, but then I thought about the greater good it could have” said Hart, who is also chair of NHFPC’s Food Assistance Working Group. “If they can see this is all I have to offer my son to eat, maybe that would provide a reason to change.”
Ndiaye said that her involvement with the NHFPC began by virtue of being a low-income, single parent who was raising five children and struggling to find ways to feed her family nutritiously. She ultimately decided to grow a vegetable garden in her backyard.
Several of Ndiaye’s contributions to the exhibit depict her garden, featuring images of seed packets, fresh vegetable additions to a pan of Rice-A-Roni and one of Ndiaye herself holding a squash in each hand.
“A lot of times when you’re on SNAP and you’re getting government benefits, to tell you the truth, people look at you like you’re lazy and you don’t want to do anything,” Ndiaye said. “So doing the garden and actually being involved with the Food Policy Council gave me a sense of empowerment — that I can have some sort of control over the issue with the food and nutrition.”
In addition to the exhibition, Pierson will be hosting “Food Service Days” on two Sundays in December. During these events, fellows and students in the college will have the opportunity to cook together in the Master’s House and then serve the meal at Columbus House, a New Haven homeless shelter.
Davis and Pierson College Operations Manager Tanya Wiedeking said they hope that Food Service Days will be held regularly, perhaps once a month.
“Sometimes the colleges can get to be kind of a bubble, and we want to ‘burst’ that bubble, and think about ways we can work outside of the walls of campus,” Davis said.
“Witnesses to Hunger” will be on display through January 2015.