The Hagstrom Report | Monday, November 21, 2016

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republished from The Hagstrom Report with permission

BY JERRY HAGSTROM

Experiential exhibit humanizes hunger through modern multimedia

Photo exhibitions of hungry people and even films about them have become so commonplace that they can be easy to ignore.

Almost all of them show dreary faces with stories of how society has let them down. The more stereotypical they are, the more difficult it is to conjure up an emotional urge to help.

“This is Hunger,” the mobile installation that MAZON: a Jewish Response to Hunger is about to send around the country on an 18-wheeler rig, is different. It tells the stories of people who never expected to become hungry, but found themselves needing the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as SNAP or food stamps, food banks and other programs.

“This is Hunger” tells the story of a man who lost his $100,000 manufacturing job, of the divorced woman whose executive ex-husband quit paying child support, of the veteran who found that the skills he learned in the military did not translate into a good civilian job.

The interactive exhibit on wheels “This is Hunger” uses state-of-the-art video and lighting to tell the stories in a way that only Hollywood professionals could.

Visitors to the exhibit walk into a 53-foot, double semitrailer that is darkened. They sit at a table for 30 people while circles of light are shown where plates of food might be. As faces of people are projected onto screens at each end of the table, they listen to the people tell their stories — people among the 42.2 million Americans who struggle with hunger daily.

When the stories are finished, screens on the walls behind both sides of the table are illuminated with the pictures of other people whose stories MAZON has gathered. When the experience is over, exhibit-goers are offered the opportunity to write their reflections on cards and shown actions they can take to address the hunger problem.

While MAZON lists all the usual charitable actions people can take — such as giving food to a homeless veteran, planting a community garden or contributing money to food banks — it also suggests that people exercise their “civic duty” by urging the Veterans Administration to create a program for homeless vets, encourage grocers to join the “double bucks” program so that SNAP beneficiaries can get more fruits and vegetables, and vote for candidates who advocate increased SNAP eligibility.

Before they leave, visitors also have the opportunity to create a selfie or have their picture taken with placards that can be used on social media.

From conception to traveling around the country, “This is Hunger” will cost at least $1.3 million and is a radical approach to increasing awareness of hunger, but Abby Leibman, MAZON’s president and CEO, said she came up with the idea because “the reality of hunger in America is still largely invisible. With this initiative, we’re humanizing food insecurity in a way that no anti-hunger organization has done before.

“The immersive elements take the experience of learning people’s stories to a deeper level than what news articles or standard photo gallery exhibitions can usually accomplish,” she added.

“Hunger is usually thought of in stereotypes, such as those who are homeless or children with distended bellies living in a developing country,” said Barbara Grover, an internationally renowned photojournalist who was commissioned to take the “This is Hunger” portraits.

Grover said in an interview that she traveled to cities, rural areas and military bases off and on over a three-year period, gathering the stories.

To document the variety of hunger, Grover usually started her research at food banks, where she figured out who would be best at candidly telling their stories.

Some of the most poignant, she noted, came from military families because “military people are not supposed to be weak.”

Grover interviewed 70 people and chose 40 for the exhibit. Most of the hungry people she met, Grover said, “have lived a different life at some point” and did not expect hunger to come into their lives.

To design the exhibit, Leibman turned to Marni Gittleman, a creative designer known for the Noah’s Ark exhibit in Los Angeles.

Gittleman said in an interview she started with the idea that she wanted people who enter the exhibit to “see people who resemble themselves.”

From the research on the hungry and food insecure that Grover did, Gittleman said she learned that “none of us are removed from this possibility.”

The idea of seating the visitors at a table came to her at the kitchen table of a design partner in Brooklyn, N.Y.

“The table came to us at a table,” she said with a smile. The table, she noted, invites people to think about breaking bread and sharing. She also likes the idea of participants sitting “with their eyes and hearts facing each other, soul to soul and mind to mind. From there, it is about building community.”

The need to stand up from the table at the end was not accidental, she said.

The first part of the experience of “This is Hunger” is “communal and illuminating,” to learn the complexities of hunger and how people can make a difference in fighting it.

The second part, she concluded, “is to stand up and take action.”

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Barbara Grover, front, the documentarian sent by MAZON around the country to interview hungry people; Marni Gittleman, concept and content designer; and Rick Johnson of Mobile Events, the company in charge of sending the exhibit on the road, pose in front of the truck that will take “This is Hunger” around the country. (Jerry Hagstrom/The Hagstrom Report)

Hunger exhibit heads across country to Trump, urges SNAP stays in farm bill

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Donald Trump hasn’t said anything about hunger during the presidential campaign.

But the Republican president-elect and critics of federal nutrition programs — including House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. — should be aware that an 18-wheeler rig will travel across the country in the coming months to raise awareness of the problem and gather signatures on a petition to Trump to protect the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, and keep it in the farm bill.

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Abby Leibman, left, president and CEO of MAZON, and Mia Hubbard, vice president of programs, in front of the “This is Hunger” display in the organization’s Los Angeles office. (Jerry Hagstrom/The Hagstrom Report)

“Hungry people’s lives are often talked about but rarely witnessed. They are real people,” Abby Leibman, president and CEO of MAZON: a Jewish Response to Hunger, said here last Wednesday at a gala unveiling of the exhibit at Smashbox Studios in Culver City.

“This is Hunger,” housed in a 53-foot trailer, features audio, video and social media elements to “take the experience of learning people’s stories to a deeper level than what news articles or standard photo gallery exhibitions can usually accomplish,” Leibman said. (See accompanying story for details.)

People who visit the exhibit will be asked to take action to maintain federal nutrition programs by signing the petition or by asking a member of Congress to maintain the programs and increase benefits.

After a series of stops in California in December, the exhibit — pulled by the same type of truck that food companies use to move their products across the country — will move on to Arizona in early January and travel across the country through next July. The exhibit will be in the Washington, D.C., area February 8-21.

MAZON, which is based in Los Angeles, is aligned with other nutrition groups and farm groups in trying to keep the farm and nutrition programs together in one bill. Both farm and nutrition advocates have said that separating the two could make it impossible to get Congress to vote for either program.

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Josh Protas

“MAZON remains committed to protecting and strengthening SNAP so that it reaches even more people in need and provides a more adequate benefit to enable them to purchase nutritious food,” said Josh Protas, MAZON’s Washington-based vice president for public policy. “We will fight against efforts to block-grant and gut funding for the program as well as attempts to try to strip the nutrition title out of the farm bill. Such proposals would cause great harm for vulnerable populations and would add to the problem of hunger, not diminish it.”

In addition to these “big picture” priorities, Protas added, MAZON remains “committed to addressing food insecurity challenges for populations that don’t get as much public attention, including currently serving military families, veterans, people in rural and remote communities, Native Americans, and LGBT seniors.”

The “This is Hunger” traveling exhibition is not a response to the 2016 election. MAZON has been preparing “This is Hunger” for three years and takes the view that all politicians, Democrats and Republicans, need to be more aware that 42 million Americans (more than one in eight people of all ethnicities and ages and 13 percent of households) had difficulty at some point in the last year in providing enough food for their families.

But at the launch, Leibman said, “We know our government will be markedly different in January.” If the new administration and Congress ignore the needs of the hungry, they need to be informed that “this is not America,” she said.

“We need the truck out there on the road,” Leibman added, as she asked attendees to pledge money beyond the $180 to $3,600 gala tickets to pay to keep the exhibit, which cost $1.3 million to create, on the road.

“Congress needs to hear from you over and over again,” Leibman said.

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MAZON chairwoman Shirley Davidoff speaks at the “This is Hunger” launch at Smashbox Studios, Culver City, Calif. Seated behind her is Sheila James Kuehl, a Los Angeles County supervisor, who served as master of ceremonies.(Jerry Hagstrom/The Hagstrom Report)

Faces of hunger must be brought out of the shadows,” added Shirley Davidoff, a Dallas nurse practitioner who chairs MAZON.

The traveling truck may also raise the profile of MAZON, which is a 30-year-old national anti-hunger organization, but not as well known as other groups, perhaps because it is based in Los Angeles. MAZON is noted in Washington for its Passover anti-hunger Seder on Capitol Hill that attracts officeholders from both parties.

MAZON was founded after Leonard Fein, a Jewish writer and activist, wrote in 1985 that Jews should “set aside a portion of our joy to feed the hungry.”

Fein was drawing on a Jewish tradition that a simchah (Hebrew for celebration) should include the poor. In its early days, MAZON (which means food or sustenance) raised money by convincing Jewish families to give the organization 3 percent of the budget for a wedding, bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah to fight hunger.

Fein saw “a lot of lavish food and decorations” at these Jewish family events, Leibman said, and he wanted to refocus families on “the meaning behind the events” such as marriage or coming of age, not just the party. Kuehl says she has “tried to be a champion for people who struggle” ever since she heard the story of a boy who said he was so hungry he acted up repeatedly in order to be sent to the principal’s office to get a piece of candy.

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Jerry Hagstrom meets Sheila James Kuehl of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, who was mistress of ceremonies at the “This is Hunger” event. Kuehl played Zelda on the 1960s TV show “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.” Kuehl says she has “tried to be a champion for people who struggle” ever since she heard the story of a boy who said he was so hungry he acted up repeatedly in order to be sent to the principal’s office to get a piece of candy.

Today, MAZON also raises money through direct mail and appeals to donors. It has a 501(c)(3) status with the Internal Revenue Service, and donations to it are tax deductible. It has an annual budget of $8 million per year, which Leibman said makes it a small but national organization.

What distinguishes MAZON from other anti-hunger groups is that it does not feed people directly, but has always been an advocate for improving federal, state and local programs. While much of its focus is on federal programs, it played a role in broadening free school lunch in Minnesota. (See accompanying story.)

“We are exclusively focused on addressing this issue through public policy change, civic engagement, public education,” said Mia Hubbard, vice president of programs at MAZON.

MAZON doesn’t have state chapters, but it has a network of synagogue support throughout the country that identifies needs that should be addressed.

It is also known for taking up causes that bigger, national groups have ignored, such as the hunger on Indian reservations and among military families. It has also in recent years encouraged food banks to stock healthier foods.

MAZON has also won the respect of other anti-hunger advocates.

“MAZON has been a stalwart national anti-hunger force for decades, making grants supporting advocacy around the country and mobilizing communities to raise awareness of hunger and the solutions to end it,” said Jim Weill, president of the Food Research & Action Center.

Eric Kessler, a Washington-based consultant who advises philanthropists on food and hunger issues, said that grassroots organizations such as MAZON “play a critical role in elevating the voice of the hungry and pointing to real solutions. Now more than ever, MAZON’s faith-based voice is critical to progress in reducing hunger in America.”

When exactly will MAZON petition Trump and the Congress?

That depends on how the Trump administration and the Republican-led Congress treat nutrition programs in the coming months and years.

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The interior of the exhibit features photo walls and a wooden table that can seat 30 people to learn about hunger. (Holmes Associates photo)

MAZON’s leaders remain “outraged” that neither presidential campaign “discussed poor Americans at all,” but were relieved that fighting hunger did not become a partisan issue, Leibman said.

Because Trump has been silent on the issue, MAZON is focused on congressional Republicans’ previous proposals to take SNAP out of the farm bill and Ryan’s proposals to turn the program into a limited block grant to the states.

The invitation to sign the petition on an iPad in the exhibit says, “The magnitude of the SNAP cuts and reforms likely to be introduced early in the Trump administration would dramatically increase hunger and poverty. Please join MAZON in urging the new administration to protect the SNAP program and the millions of Americans who cannot feed their families without it. Your voice will be heard by the president and administration leaders.”

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Kathe Katy, left, and Jerri Klein-Kaplan, who traveled from Orange County, Calif., to Temple Israel on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, pose in the social media center where attendees can take selfies to use on Twitter and other sites. (Jerry Hagstrom/The Hagstrom Report)

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Maya Joseph of the MAZON staff, who will travel with the exhibit, takes questions from visitors at its first stop at Temple Israel on Hollywood Boulevard, Los Angeles. (Jerry Hagstrom/The Hagstrom Report)

This Is Hunger National Tour dates

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Dates may fluctuate slightly; refer to the map for exact dates in each metro area. Reserve free tickets at http://thisishunger.org/the-tour/. For information, see www.thisishunger.org.

  • Nov. 16-Dec. 18, 2016: Greater Los Angeles Area
  • Jan. 2-5, 2017: Phoenix
  • Jan. 6-8, 2017: Tucson
  • Jan. 11-15, 2017: Dallas
  • Jan. 18-22, 2017: Atlanta
  • Jan. 25-Feb. 5, 2017: Miami
  • Feb. 8-21, 2017: Washington, D.C.
  • Feb. 24-Mar. 1, 2017: Baltimore
  • Mar. 5-20, 2017: Philadelphia
  • Mar. 21-May 6, 2017: New York City/Tri-State Area
  • May 8-21, 2017: Boston
  • May 24-28, 2017: Cleveland
  • Jun 2-20, 2017: Chicago
  • Jun 22-27, 2017: St. Louis
  • Jun 29-Jul 2, 2017: Kansas City
  • Jul 8-31, 2017: San Francisco Bay Area

MAZON's Minnesota connection

Steve Krikava was known for many years as the director of government relations for Minnesota-based Land O’Lakes, one of the biggest dairy cooperatives in the country.

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Steve Krikava

But when he retired in 2013, Krikava, who had been an active member of the Adath Jeshurun Congregation in Minnetonka, Minn., joined the board of MAZON, the Los Angeles-based organization that subtitles itself “A Jewish Response to Hunger.” In the last few years, Krikava’s leadership has intensified MAZON’s involvement in efforts to reduce hunger in Minnesota and in strengthening the farm and anti-hunger coalition that is important to passing farm bills.

In Minnesota, under Krikava’s leadership, MAZON has made grants to Hunger Solutions Minnesota and Mid Minnesota Legal Aid, which work toward reducing hunger in the state. Minnesota is a fairly wealthy state with low unemployment, but Hunger Solutions Minnesota’s data shows that almost 3.3 million people made visits to the state’s food banks in 2015.

In 2014, Hunger Solutions Minnesota organized a coalition called the Partnership to End Hunger to convince the state legislature to pass a bill to provide free lunches to all Minnesota schoolchildren who would qualify for reduced-price lunches. The partnership’s members included the Minnesota Farmers Union, a longtime supporter of Hunger Solutions Minnesota; the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council; and the Minnesota Milk Producers Association, a statewide dairy farmer group.

After some initial resistance, the legislature passed the bill, and today Minnesota children who qualify for reduced-price lunches get the meals free.

“Through a remarkable coincidence, Dairy Day at the Capitol in 2014 happened to be on the same day as Hunger Day on the Hill. So at the same time that we had anti-hunger activists in St. Paul advocating for our bill, the dairy farmers were there as well with a supportive message,” Krikava recalled in an email.

Hunger Solutions, with MAZON’s help, has also encouraged the use of the “double bucks” programs, in which beneficiaries of federal nutrition programs can buy more fruits and vegetables at farmers markets.

Today, Krikava, who grew up on a farm in Freeborn County, Minn., and graduated from Albert Lea High School and the University of Minnesota, is focused on forging a stronger link between anti-hunger and farm groups.

“Our experience in Minnesota shows that when farmers and food companies and anti-hunger groups work together, it creates powerful political clout that’s convincing to legislators. I hope we’re able to forge that kind of partnership in Washington as we all look forward to developing the provisions of a new farm bill,” Krikava said.

Star Tribune — ‘No child ... is going to go hungry’: School lunch bill passes House unanimously