Breaking stereotypes and sharing stories, women use cameras to take aim at hunger

February 18, 2014 at 6:47 PM EDT
What does hunger look like in America? In Colorado, a diverse group of women who receive food assistance benefits are chronicling their personal experiences through photography. The NewsHour’s Mary Jo Brooks takes a closer look at their work, which has been exhibited at coffee shops, libraries and the state capitol.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: shedding light on hunger in the U.S., through the eyes of women struggling to put food on the table.

The NewsHour’s Mary Jo Brooks has the story.

MARY JO BROOKS: A year-and-a-half ago, 32-year-old Robin Dickinson, a family practice physician, was living her dream. She and her stay-at-home husband, Tim, were raising two young children in their small bungalow in suburban Denver.

ROBIN DICKINSON: I was a normal mom, taking my kids to the zoo, taking my kids to the museum and the playground.

MARY JO BROOKS: Then the unthinkable happened: Dickinson suffered two strokes that left her unable to work.

ROBIN DICKINSON: I fatigue very easily. So, when I get tired, after a few hours, I start getting really dizzy. And so if I’m walking down a hall and someone is walking the other way, I fall.

MARY JO BROOKS: She was forced to quit her job and live off savings while she recovered. Her husband continued to care for the children, and now her.

And while they managed to pay mortgage and utility bills, there was almost no money left over for food.

ROBIN DICKINSON: We were down to the point where we were eating potatoes and oatmeal and rice. And one night, it suddenly occurred to me, we qualify for assistance. There’s a safety net there for a reason. It’s for people in our situation.

It’s — it has nothing to do with your education. It has nothing to do with how good a person you are or how hard you work. It has everything to do with your financial situation. And our financial situation was really bad.

MARY JO BROOKS: Last April, she applied, and qualified, for food stamps, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

ROBIN DICKINSON: I will never forget that first grocery trip. My kids were so excited. Eleanor loves cucumbers, and so we got her cucumbers. So, she’s sitting in the cart hugging her cucumbers, and Charlie has his watermelon in his lap, all this stuff that we hadn’t eaten in months.

And we went to the checkout and we’re getting everything paid for, and the checker is like, what’s going on? Is it somebody’s birthday? What are you celebrating? And I said, we went grocery shopping. It was amazing.

MARY JO BROOKS: The experience of suddenly falling into poverty has made Dickinson want to speak out about hunger and how widespread it’s become among working and middle-class people.

Several months ago, she joined a project sponsored by the non-profit group Hunger Free Colorado, which gives cameras to recipients of SNAP benefits. It’s called Hunger Through My Lens and asks participants to chronicle what it’s like to be hungry in America.

Fifteen women are in the pilot project. They come from all walks of life. And their photographs have become part of a traveling exhibit, seen in coffee shops, libraries, churches, and most recently the lobby of the Colorado State Capitol.

At each exhibit opening, the women come to share their stories with anyone who will listen.

ROBIN DICKINSON: A year ago, I had a stroke and ended up in the same situation as all the other women in the exhibit, not being able to afford food and medical care. A lot of people see me, and I look perfectly normal to them. And they don’t understand the struggles that I have. You can’t see autism. And you can’t see post-traumatic stress disorder.

MARY JO BROOKS: Sometimes it’s difficult to tell by looking at the photos what they have to do with hunger, but the women are quick to explain.

WOMAN: (INAUDIBLE) fancy buildings doesn’t feed me. We spend how much money on these buildings, but yet our people are hungry.

WOMAN: Going to the grocery store was extremely stressful, because every time I went, I knew I wouldn’t be able to get everything on the list.

WOMAN: This is another picture that I did. This is what you’re always doing when you’re hungry, waiting. You’re always waiting. It gets to a point where you’re hopeless.

CAROLINE POOLER: Here we have this one.

MARY JO BROOKS: Caroline Pooler is one of the photographers. She says it’s important for them to tell their stories to get rid of stereotypes of just who lives in poverty.

CAROLINE POOLER: Any one of your fellow peers, colleagues or fellow parishioners may be hungry, but you don’t know that about them, because people don’t want to advertise that about themselves. There’s lots of people out there who do not have enough to eat until next payday. There’s a lot of working people who give their last five bucks to their kid for lunch and they go without. And so that’s kind of a different face of hunger than people are thinking of hunger.

MARY JO BROOKS: Pooler, who lost her job as a medical assistant two years ago, at first resisted the idea of going on food stamps. Instead, she relied on places like this community cafe, which serves hot lunch to people in need. But one day, when she was turned away from a food bank that had run out of food, she realized she needed something more reliable.

CAROLINE POOLER: I decided to apply for food stamps at that time.

And I was awarded them. And I really can’t tell you what that’s meant to my overall ability to function, get things done in the day, and now have been able to at least see the light at the end of the poverty vortex, as I call it, where I’m in full-time school in a dental assisting program. So I’m hopeful that the training is going to translate into a full-time job, me getting off SNAP, and being able to support myself fully.

MARY JO BROOKS: In addition to taking those dental classes, Pooler has become an artist and makes some money selling her art. She hopes to be off SNAP benefits by the fall, but says she’s always going to remain active in hunger issues.

CAROLINE POOLER: Food ties families together. Food is something that brings lovers together, friends. I really think that food is an important part of our culture that I don’t want to see somehow diminished.

So I think bringing it into the forefront, helping solve this problem of hunger is going to make a big difference. I really do believe that.

MARY JO BROOKS: Robin Dickinson also hopes to be off federal benefits soon. She has started her own family practice clinic for low-income patients. Right now, she works one to two hours a day. But as her strength returns, she hopes to go back to full-time work.

ROBIN DICKINSON: Our original goal was to be off food stamps by now, but you can’t predict how long a stroke takes to recover from. I was thinking I would be like completely back to normal now, which is not the case.

But our goal is that, by next year, we’re not going to need public assistance anymore. And we have a five-year goal of building my own building in order to have more services offered for my patients at affordable prices. And I have big plans.

MARY JO BROOKS: Hunger Through My Lens has big plans as well. The project hopes to expand to communities all across Colorado later this year.