Researcher creates "Witnesses to Hunger" through images, stories

Wednesday, March 4, 2009 | 8:43 p.m. CST; updated 12:06 p.m. CST, Friday, March 6, 2009
As she stands with her son Demire in her kitchen, Imani Sullivan talks about her frustration over trying to care for her two children with her janitor's pay.

*CORRECTION: Barbie Izquierdo works at Aaron's Rent-a-Center. An earlier version of the story misidentified her place of work.

PHILADELPHIA — An office party goes on without her, across town in an affluent world vastly different from the one where Mariana Chilton now finds herself. Her husband's tried calling. Twice.

And still she sits in dress slacks and stocking feet, gray suede shoes tossed aside, on the drab carpet of a row house in the Philadelphia projects, playing with someone else's children while her own three kids wait for Mom to come home.


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A mouse scurries by, but Chilton doesn't flinch.

She is listening, for the umpteenth time, as another mother speaks about what it means to be poor and hungry in America.

About how this mom scrimps and stretches by adding more than the usual amount of water to powdered milk to make it last. And how, at times, she makes chicken for her children but eats Oodles of Noodles herself. About the $50 left on the food stamp card that must carry this family two more weeks.

Tianna Gaines is her name. She is 29, black, with twin babies and a toddler, facing eviction because she's $300 behind on rent.

The government calls circumstances like these "food insecurity." Chilton knows the term well, though she can't personally relate to its consequences. She is 40, white, Harvard-educated, raised on Martha's Vineyard. She lives miles from here, in a nice brick house with a nuclear physicist husband and children who eat three square meals a day.

How she came to be in Gaines' living room, holding her babies and listening to her problems, is a testament to one woman's dogged determination to make a difference.

For years, Chilton directed statistical studies about food insecurity without hearing the stories of the people behind the statistics, without really recognizing what hunger means here, in her backyard.

And so the researcher doled out digital cameras to inner-city mothers and made them the chroniclers of a plight too often ignored. But her gift — her real gift — was something far more profound.

Witnessing hunger

"Where is one of my favorite photos?" Chilton scans a wall of frames inside an exhibit hall at Drexel University. She stops at one, brushing the glass as if to caress the child herself. "Let me tell you about this kid."

The little girl, between 15 and 16 months old, wears a striped top that swallows her tiny arms. Her nose is runny, her eyes empty.

Hers is not the picture of hunger that Americans are accustomed to seeing. She isn't emaciated, like those living in squalid conditions in famine-stricken countries, but she is underweight and malnourished, often fed chips and sugary drinks instead of milk and formula.

The very word, hunger, means something different in 2009 in America. It manifests itself in poor diets lacking in fruits and vegetables, in children who are fed fatty, cheap foods like hot dogs or Ramen noodles and may be overweight but also hungry. It shows in a child's health, and in the everyday hard choices of mothers and fathers: Buy Pampers or formula? Pay the heating bill or fill the fridge?

Even before the economy tanked, some 36 million adults and children struggled with hunger in 2007, including 12 million the government considers to have "very low food security" — meaning they suffered a substantial disruption to their food supply at some point during the year.

The number of Americans receiving food stamps reached an all-time high last year, topping 30 million in September, October and November, even though the maximum benefit for a family of four — $588 — still falls $78 short of the cheapest possible government-established plan to feed a family that size.

President Barack Obama, whose own mother once received food stamps, has pledged to end childhood hunger; the administration's stimulus package raises food stamp benefits by 14 percent.

What bothers Chilton is that the numbers, startling as they are in a country as rich as this one remains, seem to do little to effect lasting change. And that's not an easy thing for a number-cruncher to admit.

An epidemiologist, folklorist and assistant professor of health policy at Drexel, Chilton has spent the last five years conducting research on hunger. Her assistants would park themselves in an emergency room, gathering data from low-income mothers whenever a health crisis brought them and their children to the hospital.

Sometimes the interviewers provided phone numbers for assistance or shelters. But to Chilton, it just wasn't enough.

Four years ago, she helped launch a clinic that monitors nutrition in underweight children. And she frequently testifies before Congress about hunger. Still, her work left her with a nagging thought: "There's something greater that we could do here."

So when she learned she'd won a $100,000 award in late 2007, she ignored suggestions that she take a vacation and instead started work on "Witnesses to Hunger." She purchased digital cameras and distributed fliers to some of the mothers who had been interviewed over the years.

"Speak. Teach," it said. "We want to learn from you."

Some, at first, were more than a little skeptical of Chilton. She didn't live like they did; how could she understand? Would she judge? Call social services? But more powerful than their fear and skepticism was a desperation to simply be heard.

Overcoming shame

The text message arrives just after 9 in the morning from Barbie Izquierdo, 21 years old, a mother of two.

"Im at salvation army. i would like u 2 c this. i've been here since 8."

Chilton is driving the streets of Philadelphia in a downpour to visit one mother after another. She finds Izquierdo inside a sprawling sanctuary packed with hundreds of people waiting to pick up donations.

Izquierdo, already late for work, holds a slip of paper with her number in line: 633.

"Who are all these people?" Chilton asks her.

"People just like me," she says.

She works full time at Aaron's Rent-a-Center.* She takes two buses to bring home $9 an hour, $268 net every week. When she submitted her pay stub to the welfare office, a letter came in the mail saying she was ineligible for food stamp benefits. "PURCHASE OWN FOOD," it stated.

If only it was that easy. Izquierdo pays $400 in housing every month, $80 for daycare, $54 for the phone, $60 for electricity, $80 on diapers and baby wipes, another $80 or so on transportation, leaving a few hundred dollars for food, health care and anything else she needs for herself, her 3-year-old daughter, Leylanie, and 1-year-old son, Aidan.

"As of yesterday, I had 4 cents on my debit card," she says.

She doesn't pity herself, not when she gives her kids hot dogs because that's all she can afford, not each and every day that she goes without breakfast. Not on this day, when she has yet to put a single morsel in her mouth.

Years ago, when the hunger was almost too much to bear, she learned a trick: She'd flip through takeout menus to look at pictures of the food and, eventually, just looking was enough to diminish her cravings.

"At times I am ashamed, but there's a difference between being ashamed and not doing anything about it," she says.

Izquierdo, a bony 5-foot-8 woman who dreams of college and a criminal justice career, was Chilton's inaugural project participant.

Her first photograph showed a neighbor's kitchen, covered in sewage and streaked with dirt. When Chilton saw this, she understood that hunger goes far beyond what's in someone's stomach. It is the life that exists all around them, "a vortex of very negative experiences," she calls it.

The photographs of the 40 mothers who joined the project depict that vortex in stark reality.

Blood on the sidewalk in one mother's neighborhood. Marijuana bags next to a playground slide. Foodstuff hidden behind piles of clothes so it's not eaten too fast.

Imani Sullivan, 29, works as a janitor while caring for her two small children. "I wanted somebody to hear my story, and I figured this was the only way I was gonna let it out. I just took the pictures that I felt was right."

Like one picture of her 2-year-old, his arm outstretched, asking her welfare case officer for something to eat.

"He was saying, 'Please,'" Sullivan says.

Another mother, 24-year-old Erica Smalley, took a self-portrait of her own tear-streaked face. "Hunger, to me, was not just the food issue," she says. "It was an everything issue: Hunger for resources. Hunger for support."

The exhibit debuted just before Christmas at Drexel. Many of the moms attended and told their stories.

Izquierdo left feeling as if she'd made a difference.

"For once in my life, I didn't have low self-esteem. I was like, 'Oh my God. That's me. That's my picture right there.'"

When Izquierdo arrived home that night, she found her basement flooded, her kids' clothes — already stuffed in a trash bag for protection — floating in murky water. She did what came naturally and took a picture to share with Chilton.

Retelling this story, sitting late for work while waiting for a handout from the Salvation Army, Izquierdo begins to cry.

But Chilton is there to comfort her.

"You can make it," she says. "You can do it."

Fighting indifference

Chilton calls her mothers agents of change. They call her their Dr. Phil.

In truth, she is part therapist, cheerleader, sister, savior and, most of all, their friend.

The photographs have all come down, for now — though Chilton was invited to show the exhibit in Washington, D.C., this spring. She wants to bring some of the mothers, too, and finally have these "real experts" talk to members of Congress.

In the meantime, she still visits them. And they still call. They call when they're short on rent, not to ask for money but to lean on their new ally. They call with good news, too. When a co-worker offered financial assistance to Smalley, the first person she called was Chilton.

She listens to their stories, offers advice, rubs their backs, wipes their tears, tries to help monetarily when she can — buying them lunch, dipping into another project to purchase a refrigerator for Tianna Gaines when hers busted.

"I care so much about the women, and I care so much about their children, ... but I know that helping them with a little money here and there helps them just enough," she says. "It takes widespread policy change to have a true impact."

That, she says, and getting enough people to see the photographs and start changing the way they treat others.

"I'm fighting on a very deep level of indifference. How do you do that? I don't really know. I'm just trying my best."

The night she missed the office party for a visit with Gaines instead, Chilton stuffed an envelope in the mother's hand with $25 donated from a men's group that read about "Witnesses to Hunger." There was also a little extra.

It was only then that Gaines, so strong, broke down. The two women embraced.

"Thank you. Thank you. Thank you," Gaines said again and again through her tears.

"I wish it could've been more," Chilton said.

But Gaines shook her head. "It's enough."

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michele serpico March 15, 2009 | 2:15 p.m.

I was laid off the 2nd week of February. I'm a single mother, white, 52 & live in California. I get $475.00 in unemployment a week. It doesn't cover my rent. I rent out two bedrooms & that still leaves me to pay $1,000.00 myself. Obviously I can't even pay my utility bills & I'll most likely lose the only car I have because I can't pay the $333.00 payment. Food? Are you kidding me!! I applied for food stamps but make too much money. If I can't pay my bills, etc., why can't I qualify for food stamps so I don't have to spend money on food? I can prove I can't make ends meet but that doesn't matter. Because I could never afford to buy a house on my own & have to rent, I am seriously looking at becoming homeless & without transportation. Where is my "stimulis" help? I made $43,000.00 last year so I obviously made too much to qualify for anything. How do I explain all this to my son? How do I explain that although I have paid enormous amounts of money in taxes, towards unemployment & even to medicaid or medicare or what ever! I went to my local food bank & every 4 weeks I can get for free; 1 whole chicken, 1lb of ground round, 1 dozen eggs, 1 loaf of bread, 1 box of cereal & numerous single cans of soup, beans & vegetables.
I just wanted to share my story since it appears I come from a different back ground. And I'll probably end up in a very different enviornment simply because I'm a lower-middle class statistic that can't get assistance from my state or government. I do believe I have fallen through the cracks of society.
Thank you,

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking March 15, 2009 | 6:15 p.m.

Michele, wait a minute. You made $43,000 last year, which, after taxes. is about $2,400/month. And out of that you pay $1,400 some in rent? And a $333/month car payment?

You're living beyond your means. I'm sure you can find 2 bedrooms for half of what you're paying, and a far cheaper car, and you can cut out the cable/satellite and cell phone too, if you have them. Cooking at home would help also, if you don't already.

Figure out what you need, and go from there. You have to understand that you don't need it all, in fact, you don't need most of it. Wouldn't it be nice to have some money to save at the end of the month?


(Report Comment)

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