New All-Digital Hunger Museum Charts US Response to Food Insecurity Through a Jewish Lens (JTA)

Larry Luxner
March 28, 2023

This piece originally appeared in JTA on March 28, 2023.

An 1888 portrait of Ellen Swallow Richards and her all-female home economics class at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A 1915 campaign poster that maps out the 20 states providing food assistance for widows and single mothers. A 1940 photo of Japanese-American children eating hot dogs at a World War II internment camp in Idaho. A video of the 1950 launch of the “Betty Crocker TV Show.”

These are among the fascinating artifacts and mementos on exhibit at the Hunger Museum, a new barrier-breaking museum that seeks to inform and raise awareness about hunger in the United States.

A virtual project of MAZON, the museum’s six galleries chronicle well over a century of U.S. hunger and anti-hunger public policy, from the Civil War through 9/11, the 2018 government shutdown and the COVID-19 pandemic.

The all-digital Hunger Museum was conceived by Abby J. Leibman, president and CEO of MAZON, a national organization based in Los Angeles. It took three years to put together and opened on March 9.

“The Hunger Museum began as an idea, and it has exceeded my wildest expectations,” said Leibman, who has led MAZON since 2011. “It’s visually stunning and incredibly immersive, as if you’re in an actual exhibit space. There’s so much to learn as you move through the museum’s galleries and artifacts.”

The website, developed by Dan and Tamara Zimmerman of Loyal Design, has six galleries with multiple exhibits and hundreds of webpages. Leibman says there is growing interest in and awareness of the issue of hunger among Americans generally — and U.S. Jews in particular.

“Because of the pandemic, hunger registered in a far more present way than it ever has before — and not only because millions of people instantly became food-insecure as jobs were lost and businesses closed,” she said. “It was also evident in media coverage and photos of literally hundreds of cars waiting in line for free boxes of groceries.”

Besides its galleries, the Hunger Museum, like any physical museum, also features venues such as a multistory lobby overlooking an atrium, an auditorium (for online events), the Terrace Restaurant and a Wishing Tree inspired by Yoko Ono’s Wish Tree that allows visitors to leave a wish for those who struggle with hunger. However, at this museum, all these features are virtual. There’s also the SNAP Café — where virtual diners can select dishes from the five major food groups and calculate how much that meal would cost, and whether they could afford it if they were on SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly known as food stamps).

“This is really an innovative initiative, not only in the way it’s being delivered as a virtual museum, but also because of the story it tells about hunger in this country — and our response — over a 100-year period,” said Mia Hubbard, vice-president of programs at MAZON, which has 23 full-time employees and an annual budget of $8.5 million.

“Food insecurity is a pervasive and persistent part of our history, and that becomes clear as you go through the galleries,” said Hubbard.

The Hunger Museum aims not only to raise awareness and inform people about hunger’s history in America, but also to create a Jewish call to action — to inspire people to help fight hunger.

“We are focused on social justice and repairing the world, and since hunger has been an enduring part of the American social condition, it requires constant vigilance,” Hubbard said. “Part of MAZON’s role is to rally the Jewish community, and in turn, create the political will to end hunger.”

Naama Haviv, MAZON’s vice-president of community engagement, said that while plenty of brick-and-mortar museums have created online exhibits, nobody has ever done an entirely virtual museum  before.

The most significant changes in American society on hunger issues occurred during the 1960s and ‘70s, Haviv said, when bipartisan efforts shifted public understanding and political will to address hunger more comprehensively.

“Americans started to realize that hunger was not a personal moral failing. It was systemic and based on people’s lack of access to economic security, and oftentimes lack of access to government safety net programs,” Haviv said.

She added that hunger in America can be solved because it was solved once before, citing household surveys showing that just 3% of Americans went hungry in 1969. Today, by comparison, 12% of the population is on SNAP, and over 34 million people are food -insecure.

“During the first few months of the pandemic, that number skyrocketed to around 80 million, but then, because we had robust government investment in food safety-net programs, we saw those numbers drastically reduced,” Haviv said. “We are now below pre-pandemic levels.”

But instead of understanding the lessons of history, and learning from the recent experience of the pandemic, efforts to make it more difficult for those who struggle to find stability and food security are now underway, she warned.

For example, under current U.S. law, SNAP work requirements restrict essential benefits for “able-bodied” adults without dependents between ages 18 and 49. Rep. Dusty Johnson, a Republican from South Dakota, has introduced a bill to expand this category to age 65. Earlier this year, Sen. Rick Scott, a Florida Republican, introduced similar legislation that would raise the restriction to age 59. Both bills would also bar states from seeking a waiver to the “able-bodied adults” time limit—even if there aren’t enough jobs for all those in need.

“These changes are unacceptable and will make matters worse, because not only do they ignore history — they rely on narrow thinking about the lives of struggling Americans while ignoring the many systems that contribute to hunger, and thus to its end,” Leibman said.

“But,” Leibman added, “we know we can end hunger in America. The proof is in our history.”