Imagine sitting down with a bunch of people at the dinner table, then watching all the plates disappear right before your eyes.
Welcome to the world of some 42.2 million Americans, including 12.4 percent of all Pennsylvanians, who often live their lives not knowing where their next meal is coming from.
That’s part of the message delivered through “This Is Hunger,” an interactive exhibit that takes place inside a 53-foot truck, presented by MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger. The free exhibit, which debuted in Los Angeles before Thanksgiving, will visit 30 cities through August.
It’s now in the Philadelphia area, having completed a five-day stopover at Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park on March 9, before heading to Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill from March 10 to 13. From there, it’s on to Main Line Reform Temple in Wynnewood from March 14 to 16, then into Center City at Congregation Rodeph Shalom March 17 to 20, before the truck treks to Lawrenceville, N.J., and New York.
“We’re trying to raise awareness of certain things,” said Robin Rifkin, co-facilitator for Act Against Hunger, the local group coordinating the project in conjunction with MAZON, a 30-year-old nonprofit organization based in Los Angeles. “One is that hunger in our community may not be what you think it is.
“There are preconceived notions of who’s hungry. A lot of them are everyday people who may have worked their whole lives and fallen upon hard times — people who didn’t think they’d have to ever deal with this.”
Food insecurity, as it’s called, can affect everyone from a senior who finds their fixed income isn’t sufficient to cover living expenses to a family of four where someone lost a job or has to deal with a crisis that depleted their bank account.
In such cases, Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) — better known as food stamps — has traditionally come to their aid. But now there’s a movement being led by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan to modify SNAP and put it under federal rather than state control.
That could mean the amount of funding will change based on the number of those who qualify. And simply qualifying for the program, which starts with filling out a lengthy application, is difficult in itself.
“We met with the Department of Human Services, and our goal with them is to make it as easy as possible for people who need SNAP to get it,” Rifkin said.
“They are talking about making a block transfer, which is based on how many are qualified. We will be working to prevent that.”
As part of the exhibit, which begins with a 14-minute video in which men and women tell their personal stories, there’s a place for participants to sign a petition urging their local politicians to oppose the proposed changes. In addition, there’s a box for donations, as well an opportunity to join the effort or find out more information.
The idea behind the truck, which features quotes from those personal stories on its outer panels, was formed about three years ago.
“We actually started taking the pictures [which cover the inner panels] five years ago,” explained Michelle Stuffmann, MAZON director of outreach and communication. “We wanted to devise some sort of interactive multimedia experience which would enable people to feel something.
“Food insecurity means people don’t have consistent access to enough food to lead an active, healthy life. They may not know where their next meal is coming from, but it gets really complicated with the number of who’s eligible based on the federal poverty guidelines.”
The average food insecurity for U.S households from 2013 to 2015 was 13.7 percent. Among that group, 17.9 percent were children and 8.8 percent were seniors.
The number of children impacted in Pennsylvania alone was higher than the national average at 19.3 percent. And in Philadelphia those numbers rise to 21.7 percent overall and 22.4 percent among children.
For MAZON, the bottom line is simple.
“We want people to not forget that not everyone has food on their table,” Rifkin said. “And we want people to take action. Call you senators and congressmen. Make your voices heard.”
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