When a group of 20 adults and children walks into a dimly-lit trailer parked outside the Bender Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, they find a table lined with chairs, and a circle of light illuminating the space in front of each chair. Two electronic screens sit at each end of the table.
The lights dim until the room is pitch black, and they hear music playing.
“My childhood was a very beautiful childhood. My mom was used to always getting us what we wanted. It wasn’t the best house ever, but it still was ours,” a young female voice says as her image appears on a screen.
“You know how people can be hungry in America? Because they’ve lost their jobs. They’ve depleted their retirement savings. They’ve lost their homes,” an older, male voice says. His words are illuminated on the table in place of the circles of light.
As voice after voice continues to tell a story about struggling with hunger, the atmosphere in the room grows somber. This is the experience of visitors to the “This is hunger” exhibit.
Organized by Mazon: A Jewish response to hunger, a California-based anti-hunger advocacy organization, “This is hunger” is a multimedia, interactive exhibit contained in a 53-foot trailer that is touring the country. It stopped in Rockville last week after spending a week at Washington Hebrew Congregation.
The exhibit started in Los Angeles in November, and it will continue to tour the country until it returns to California in September.
The exhibit’s goal is to help raise awareness by sharing stories of people facing hunger.
“Most people think of someone ‘over there’ in a Third World nation” when they think about people who struggle with hunger, said Michelle Stuffmann, director of outreach and communications at Mazon.
“The reality is hunger is hidden among us,” she said. “It looks like you, me and your neighbor, and you just don’t know it. It is people who you would never guess are struggling.”
The issue of hunger is measured by food insecurity, which “is a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food,” according to the Department of Agriculture, and on average, 11.2 percent of households in greater Washington are “food insecure.”
Back in the trailer at the Bender JCC, the lights come on and the walls of the trailer are filled with photographs of people and infographics about hunger in America. Visitors are invited to use a photo booth to take pictures with signs presenting facts about hunger for social media. They can try the plan-a-meal activity to come up with nutritional meals while keeping within the budget of someone using the supplemental nutrition assistance program, or SNAP.
SNAP, otherwise known as food stamps, is a federally funded program to assist those who cannot afford enough food. In its current form, SNAP is an entitlement program, meaning the funding it receives correlates to the number of eligible people who have applied.
But that may not last.
With the White House and both houses of Congress controlled by Republicans, Mazon anticipates SNAP may be changed to “block grant” funding. Block grants delegate a certain amount of money to the state governments, which then manage the funds.
Advocates of the block grants argue the states are better suited to manage the needs of its residents.
But opponents such as Mazon say that would cut off assistance to countless numbers of eligible applicants.
“If the program were block grant [funded], it would mean capped funding with grants to the states,” said Josh Protas, vice president of public policy at Mazon.
“Not only would SNAP lose its entitlement quality, it would lose the responsiveness of the program during economic downturn.”
The exhibit impressed those who viewed it on Feb. 17.
“It’s a great presentation, and I think it should be mandatory for school kids to come in and see it, especially in Montgomery County,” said Joanne Beckish of Rockville.
The plan-a-meal activity “taught us a lot. Especially when you don’t know what you’re given as far as the amount [of money] you have per person,” another visitor said, noting they looked at the prices and “we thought we had chosen wisely [but] it was not enough. That was very educational.”