The photos and profiles you are about to view each tell a poignant story—one of hunger in our community and how it impacts people's physical and mental health. Hunger is not just a third-world problem; it affects nearly a quarter of the families living right here in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan. And one out of every five families in our region receives aid to help feed their loved ones.
This project puts a few unlikely faces to hunger and poverty. Through photos, video interviews and testimonials, Witness to Hunger spotlights a hidden category of people living in poverty: The new suburban poor, middle class or formerly middle class families, and many children, who currently find themselves hungry for sustenance and understanding.
ProMedica, along with the help of several community partners, presented a photography exhibit at the Toledo Museum of Art, early in the summer of 2013. We asked nine individuals from our region to document their experiences struggling with hunger. Over several weeks, participants utilized their new digital cameras, provided by The Andersons, to snap photographs that best illustrate their lives. As a Share Our Strength partner, ProMedica learned of similar projects and was inspired by Philadelphia's Center for Hunger Free Communities' initiatives. Their Witnesses to Hunger project—as highlighted in the documentary A Place at the Table—encouraged us to bring to light a similar situation in northwest Ohio.
Our Witness to Hunger participants captured the emotions of living with hunger. When you can't afford proper nutrition, or simply lack access to fresh fruits and vegetables, an array of health problems can add to the struggle.
Please read more about our nine participating Witness to Hunger photographers, view their photo galleries, and watch their personal journeys through video interviews.
Witness to Hunger is partially about raising awareness: To inform others about the hunger issue affecting many of our community members. It is also a call for swift and meaningful action to ensure each of our citizens has access to the nutritious, affordable food they deserve.
The message from Witness to Hunger continues to live on through community discussion. ProMedica will provide regular updates about the fight against hunger here in Toledo, as well as on the regional, state and national level. Select images from Witness To Hunger will travel to Washington D.C. in 2014, where it will support our Come to the Table Summit with The Alliance Against Hunger, encouraging other healthcare organizations to also address hunger as a health issue, and federal legislators to protect food-related programs and policies.
Should you feel compelled to participate in the local movement, please see what our community partners are doing to make a difference.
"We'll split our meals for the last week of the month," Carlena said. "While some of us have sandwiches, others might have soup or canned vegetables, whatever is available."
Prior to moving to their 4 BR/2BA apartment, Carlena and her children lived in a tighter, less fortunate situation for four months.
"There's enough space here for my family, it's not crowded like it was in our one bedroom at the shelter," Carlena said.
Though space isn't an issue for the Carters, crime is prevalent in the urban housing development. Carlena worries every day about what might happen to her children while they are outside playing. The situation is serious, as Carlena described how a bullet recently grazed her two-year-old niece in broad daylight.
"I tell my kids they don't need to find love in a gang or a man," she said. "They can choose to be leaders, not followers."
The concerned mom is part of the neighborhood block watch, and is always finding ways to occupy her children. Sometimes they will walk to the grocery store together. Bike rides to the park are a favorite family activity (though new bikes often get stolen in the apartment complex). And visits to Carlena's "Mama's" house in West Toledo guarantee quality family time and front-porch barbeques.
Carlena enjoys participating in the Witness to Hunger project, and feels that documenting her family and their struggles comes naturally. Her favorite subjects are her children.
She lives in rural Stryker, Ohio surrounded by farms, a fact in which she finds some irony—she struggles to feed her kids nutritious food while driving through rich farmland daily.
"People think that poverty only exists in the city, and I wanted to give anyone who came to this exhibit a different perspective."
Kaitlyn sometimes spends $300 per week on gas to make her daily commute. Gas is an obligation that sometimes competes with other necessities like food and medication for her family.
Unfortunately, Kaitlyn's 2-year-old daughter Madilyn suffers from reactive airway disorder and asthma, as well as allergies to air, pollen and many foods. Madilyn's various steroids and antibiotics are costly (up to $1000 per month without insurance). Kaitlyn struggles to afford the proper medications and required foods to keep her daughter healthy and happy.
Kaitlyn wants viewers to understand that living in an impoverished, rural area is just as hard as being poor in the inner city.
"It's a whole different set of problems," Kaitlyn said. "Not better or worse, just different."
In the country, poverty often means lacking access to clean water and public transportation, and hunger is the absence of a nearby grocery store.
"Kids grow up too fast in this neighborhood," Oni said.
Oni and Khalil live together in a public housing development in East Toledo, but Oni has plans to relocate as soon as she can afford it. She currently works two jobs to make ends meet, and relies on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The food assistance, totaling $172 for the month, typically feeds her family for two to three weeks before it runs out. Khalil is allergic to dairy products, eggs and nuts and requires a few more expensive groceries, such as soymilk and organic food. Oni is not always able to afford these items. But that's not even Oni's biggest concern while grocery shopping.
"I'm always worried about what people think about me," Oni said. "Instead of my food stamps, I wish I could carry around a little info sheet that lists all my accomplishments."
While Oni is a SNAP recipient, she is also a college-educated, hard-working, single mother who is ashamed of needing help.
"I want to break some of the stereotypes surrounding people on government assistance," Oni said. "I never ask for more than I think I deserve."
Reading books, cooking fish and building jigsaw puzzles are a few of the activities that help the mother and son live a "normal" life. Oni joins the Witness to Hunger program in hopes that viewers will realize she is doing the best she can for her family.
"No one is immune to poverty," Mandy said. "It doesn't matter where you come from, or how much money you make, we're all at risk of becoming poor."
Mandy and her three sons do receive child support and food assistance, but expenses add up, especially when it comes to feeding her boys.
"The food assistance comes to about $3 per person each day," Mandy said. "I will sometimes skip meals so my kids can eat more."
Still, Mandy has found a welcoming, compassionate community to help her through some of the tough times. She credits people at Lifeline for helping to restore her faith. Through this local ministry and mobile medical clinic, Mandy was introduced to Food For Thought—a social justice agency that feeds more than 400 free meals to the hungry on a weekly basis. And she also took part of Toledo Portrait, which provided her family with free holiday photos when she had no disposable income.
"These agencies and the people behind them made me feel worthy again," Mandy said. "I might not always be able to afford food, but that doesn't mean I'm less of a person."
Mandy is part of the Witness to Hunger project to show another side of poverty and hunger, perhaps a face you wouldn't expect. Her favorite subjects are her sons, and watching them enjoy life, despite the struggle.
But life took some unexpected turns for Mona. At 16, she ran away and soon realized that her grandmother's cooking was better than anything she would find on the streets. After a long-term but tumultuous relationship with the father of her now grown children, Mona lived in and out of the shelter system. She is currently homeless and receives no government assistance.
However, the support of her three successful children is something Mona never takes for granted. Whether she needs money for clothes, a ride to the grocery store, or a warm place to sleep, her son and daughters do what they can to provide for their mom. In return, she babysits her cherished grandkids, and cooks proper meals for her family. Even when kind deeds like these are offered to Mona, she often refuses them because she doesn't want to be a burden.
"I know how expensive gas can be, so I usually walk or take the bus," she said. "They work too hard for their money to give it all to me."
But Mona is proud to share that she is now engaged to marry a man who also escaped the shelter system. They have plans for a September wedding and are looking at a fixer-upper in the Old West End. Mona also has five years of experience as an electrical technician apprentice, though she still needs to fulfill her service hours. She hopes to work toward her electrical engineering degree this winter, after her new family gets settled.
The photos she exhibits for Witness to Hunger are of her grandchildren, the people she interacts with the most often. Mona wants viewers to know that everybody has a story; you just need to listen.
"I used to be ashamed of my past," Mona said. "But not anymore. Everything I've seen and been through has only made me stronger."
Working as direct care staff, Kim fosters the growth and development of adults living with disabilities. She helps others find value and passion in a job well done or a new skill learned. Two traits she's had to instill in herself and her two teenage sons, as well.
"I feel I did a good job as a mother," Kim says. "I always tried to show them the right way, encouraged them to value education and make something of their lives."
The difficulty of assuming the caregiver role is that you can often neglect your own needs. Kim is a diabetic and also has Grave's Disease, which affects her thyroid. She let her own health deteriorate for a few years and just recently received health insurance. It took her body's vital organs to stop functioning properly for her to pay attention. The doctors' visits, prescriptions and lab work can be costly and strains the family financially.
To alleviate some of the health costs, Kim decided to manage her diabetes with diet and to forego expensive insulin treatments and other prescribed medications. However, this option limits her food choices. Every piece of fruit has to be considered. She can have half a banana or 11 grapes, but more than that would be too much sugar. Carbs are to be eaten in small amounts, and her diet consists of mostly protein and vegetables. Her diet wouldn't be as effective without large amounts of exercise. Fortunately, she also has a caring significant other willing to support her.
Kim learned a lot about herself and her family by participating in the Witness to Hunger project. It gave her a reason to reach out to her sons (who now live with their father), brothers, sister and mother and find out what's been happening in their busy lives.
"Before this project, I had bad communication skills towards my family," she said. "But once the project began, there was so much emotion, so many heart-to-hearts, and open communication. It brought us closer."
After leaving Amish Country several years ago, Jim has found it nearly impossible to buy and prepare nutritious meals. Once accustomed to three well-balanced meals every day, Jim now survives by eating processed canned meats and vegetables—food he can manage with his limited cooking skills and mobility. As a result, he has gained 100 pounds since leaving his religious community.
"I'm grateful for the food assistance I receive," Jim said. "But I can't use it toward hot meals. So it's a lot of canned tuna, chicken, corn and peas a.k.a. 'bachelor cuisine.' It comes down to cooking and storage issues."
Storage is a huge concern for Jim, who lives in a studio apartment at the Collingwood Arts Center. He owns a mini-fridge, which holds his medication, milk and a few other items that require refrigeration. Lack of storage limits the amount of fresh produce he can purchase.
Retaining steady employment is also a struggle for this former farm laborer and construction worker. Jim can't predict when he's going to next experience a relapse with his condition. Severe MS episodes can set him back for days, and employers look for more reliable candidates.
Simple activities like walking to the store and carrying a bag of groceries are stressful for Jim. Sometimes, he can't even enjoy his favorite pastimes like writing poetry or articles for Toledo Streets newspaper.
"I've gotten myself into a situation that is almost an irreversible type of poverty," Jim said.
Jim's space at the arts center is currently uninhabitable. When the elevator isn't functioning, the three flights of stairs are unmanageable. His room needs to be cleaned and organized so that it can once again be suitable for living. Jim is currently living with a friend until he is well enough to handle his situation.
Jim joins Witness to Hunger in hopes of showing another side to the hunger/food inconsistency issue, and challenging pre-existing notions about the population receiving government assistance.
Lisa is also enrolled at Lourdes University, studying to receive her teaching degree. She has never received a single child support check from her ex-husband who left twelve years ago. His abrupt disappearance forced Lisa to start all over from scratch.
"I've got that survival instinct in me," Lisa said. "I know how to coupon and look for deals, but life is for living."
To get by, Lisa and her two girls have learned to be resourceful. They buy groceries to last until the next paycheck, and know the value of potatoes, rice and Ramen noodles. It's not about going hungry; it's a matter of affording healthy meals. Lisa does receive food assistance to help feed her 16-year-old daughter, Hailey.
And when it comes to shopping for the latest fashions or attending the must-see events, Lisa is frugal in all aspects of her life. She recently took Hailey to the thrift store, where they found her a $5 prom dress. The family experiences local activities, such as golf tournaments and museum exhibits as volunteers.
Lisa and her children are also active through their church, school and Food For Thought, which feeds free lunches to 400 community members every Saturday. It's Lisa's faith that motivates her to keep working hard and making a difference in the lives around her. After starting each day with a prayer on her rosary, Lisa listens to the people who come into her life and understands we're all fighting the same battles.
"There's always the hunger for food," Lisa said, "But people are also hungry for connection and a sense of belonging."
Lisa is thankful to Witness to Hunger for listening to her story.
Alex recalls a childhood of painful memories, including the time an intruder with a gun entered their Chicago apartment; and when the property owner, who knew Alex's family was in need of money, offered to "purchase" Alex for his son for the price of $200,000 (this offer was refused). After losing both parents to HIV-related illnesses by 1994, Alex and her nine siblings relocated from Chicago to Toledo with their stepfather, where they received social security benefits and found a new life. Alex's grandmother lived in Ohio, and helped raise the recently "orphaned" kids.
But adulthood has brought its share of struggles, too. Since moving to Ohio, Alex has lived in a family shelter; was sexually assaulted by an acquaintance; survived her youngest brother and grandmother passing away in 2010; and is currently raising four children (ages 7, 6, 4 and 1) with her fiancé.
The family receives monthly assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which Alex uses to buy frozen chicken and canned vegetables to last throughout the month. Alex says she can't remember a time when hunger wasn't an issue for her family.
Despite the challenges she faces, Alex feels she has to keep a positive attitude.
"I love people," she said. "I'm always looking out for others, especially the homeless."
Family comes first for Alex. She doesn't do anything without her children. They clean the house as a family. They cook together, and Alex's veggie lasagna is a family favorite. They walk Snickers, their guard dog, through the neighborhood. Just last winter, they gathered on the porch of their central Toledo home—huddled in blankets, drinking hot cocoa—to watch the meteor shower Blizzard Bill predicted. When her daughter pointed out a shooting star, Alex silently wished for only good things to happen to her family.
"It might sound silly to others, but I've gotten by on my faith and believing that wishes do come true," Alex said.
Alex joins Witness To Hunger as a survivor of hunger, poverty and violence. She says it's her life experiences that make her stronger for her own family's sake.
Thank you for visiting Juleeon's mural. This project is an Art Corner Toledo (ACT) partnership between Robin Charney and Food For Thought / 1Matters.org / HelpPortrait. It was sponsored by ProMedica, in conjunction with the Witness to Hunger project with administrative support from The Arts Commission. The mission of ACT is to promote Toledo, Ohio as a city populated by artists and activists by creating works of public art representing how we improve our corner of the world. The vision is to create points of progress and growth from sites of public art in blighted or underdeveloped neighborhoods, and to engage the community surrounding each mural in its creation by encouraging volunteerism and resource sharing.
In an effort to raise awareness about the hunger issue in our region, and to inspire hope and change amongst our friends and neighbors currently experiencing food insecurity, ProMedica has sponsored a public mural to correlate with the Witness to Hunger message. Following the success of the exhibit, this mural serves as a public reminder that hunger persists in our community.
The mural — located at the corner of Collingwood Blvd. and Delaware Ave. in Toledo's Old West End Community — depicts the smiling face of Juleeon, the son of Witness to Hunger participant Carlena Carter. ProMedica's own Robin Charney captured this image nearly two years ago at a Food For Thought event. The Carters are frequent recipients of Food For Thought's community-minded picnics, as the family struggles to keep food consistently on the table. Despite the financial hardship, the now 11-year-old Juleeon maintains his youthful innocence and happiness. He enjoys eating his mother's home-cooked chicken, prepared in a variety of ways, and taking walks in the park.
Nearly a quarter of Ohio's children struggle with hunger, though some of them, like Juleeon, might not know or understand the implications. As a community health leader, we believe we can significantly reduce this statistic through awareness and meaningful action. After visiting the mural, we hope you feel compelled to send Juleeon, and all the other children in similar situations, a positive message about ending hunger in our community. Please tag messages and photos taken at the mural with #SmilesForJuleeon for a chance to be featured on the ProMedica's social media channels.
Witness to Hunger is a project about the participation in and action by those who know firsthand the experience of living with hunger and poverty. The project supports ProMedica's Come to the Table initiative with The Alliance to End Hunger, and will travel to Washington D.C., encouraging other healthcare organizations to also address hunger as a health issue, and federal legislators to protect food-related programs and policies. Learn more about the Come to the Table Summit on Oct. 10, 2013.
You've now seen many faces of people who struggle to feed their families, but it's also important to look the broader issue. The hunger statistics for our region are startling, and ProMedica, in collaboration with our valued community partners, hopes to change them. Today, Ohio is ranked 11th in the nation for high food insecurity. Nearly a quarter of Ohio's children go to bed hungry. And one out of every five families living in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan receives aid to help feed their families and keep their children healthy.
While not everyone participating in the Witness to Hunger project receives aid, the most common type of food assistance is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. Assistance is offered through the Ohio Food Assistance Program and is designed to raise nutritional levels and safeguard the health and well being of individuals in low-income households.
These benefits are helpful to many families, including a few of our Witness to Hunger participants. But there are many household necessities such as cleansers, paper products and personal hygiene items, which aren't covered through assistance. If you'd like to contribute to any of our partner agencies in support of these needs please download our printable Shopping List and drop off your donated items at Food For Thought or Seagate Foodbank.
The following list of agencies includes our community partners who helped the Witness to Hunger effort and/or participate in ProMedica's Come to the Table effort.
As a Mission-driven, locally owned not-for-profit health system, ProMedica has focused on obesity prevention and education and has become increasingly aware of the inextricable link between hunger and obesity. The more we learned about and worked to address obesity, the effect that hunger and poverty had on obesity and overall good health became increasingly clear. Today, there is a growing understanding and commitment to address hunger as a health issue. By working collectively—both inside our facilities and in our communities—we can end hunger in our region.[ + ] Learn more about ProMedica's fight against hunger.
The Toledo Museum of Art was a likely partner and host for Witness to Hunger from the beginning. According to Kelly Fritz Garrow, director of communications for TMA, the photography project fell in alignment with other exhibitions previously held in the Museum's Community Gallery space. "We recognize the power of art to give people a voice, and as a means of examining social issues," Kelly said.
The Witness to Hunger public exhibit not only empowered the artists who got to share their stories of hunger and poverty with a public audience, but also presented viewers with a different view of their neighbors. "Some visitors identified with this issue; others were surprised that it happens so frequently in our community," Kelly said. "It's a reality that many of us are only one paycheck, family illness, or bad investment away from facing [hunger] ourselves."[ + ] Learn more about TMA's community involvement.
Something as simple as a photograph has the ability to bring dignity to those who often feel faceless. Toledo Portrait is a not-for-profit agency offering free portrait sessions to individuals and families who may not have the means to pay for a session themselves. Because it works so closely with a population on the cusp of food insecurity, the organization helped ProMedica identify families for the Witness to Hunger project.
Food for Thought began in 2007 with a group of passionate individuals and a few peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Today, they serve 200 families each month through their food pantry, and provide 400 sack lunches, as well as free loaves of bread each week to those in need. Food For Thought believes in the dignity of others above all else, and that by addressing the issue of hunger, they're also feeding the soul. The agency played a key role in helping ProMedica identify participating families for the Witness to Hunger project.
Northwest Ohio's statistics and figures about poverty are stark, but Sam Melden, executive director and chief thought officer for Food for Thought, believes it's the people who make a difference. "Stories change people more than numbers ever will," he said. Food For Thought is one of our drop-off locations for necessity items.[ + ] Learn more about Food For Thought's community programs and services.
Seagate Foodbank of Northwest Ohio is a non-profit organization established in 1982, serving as a regional food clearing house for 18 northwestern Ohio counties. ProMedica maintains a close relationship with the foodbank, contributing funds and supplies to assist the organization's mission in eliminating hunger while also identifying solutions to further alleviate the need in our community. This organization works with other agencies to form a support network for the solicitation, collection and distribution of food.
Each year, Seagate Foodbank distributes more than 15 million pounds of food to more than 500 regional food pantries, resource centers, churches, soup kitchens and more. Seagate Foodbank is one of our drop-off locations for necessity items.[ + ] Learn more about how Seagate Foodbank benefits its communities.
American Frame—a family owned and operated national supplier of custom picture frames and fine art printing services—couldn't have been more excited about printing and framing the artwork submitted by our Witness to Hunger participants.
Laura Jajko, Vice President of American Frame and her sister Dana Dunbar, Vice President of Finance for the framing company, said they learned at an early age the value of wholesome food as nutrition, comfort and medicine, and as a way to socially connect. They are also familiar with the impact of a powerful image. "[These photographs] will undoubtedly draw attention to the issue of hunger and aid in furthering this important dialog," Laura said.[ + ] Learn more about American Frame's services.
What began in the 1940s with a single grain elevator and family ties now thrives as The Andersons, Inc. Still very much rooted in the community and dedicated to its commitment to serve, The Andersons says they have a keen interest in getting food from the fields to our plates. They believe companies directly involved in the food supply chain have a responsibility to help eliminate hunger, and strive to support a wide variety of organizations that serve the basic needs of individuals.
"It seems unreasonable that any community, state and country that has such wealth would also have children who go to bed hungry each night. It is important for everyone in the community to work to eradicate hunger," said Community Commitment Manager Julie Payeff.
The Andersons provided the Witness to Hunger participants with digital cameras so they too could make people aware of the journey their food takes each day.[ + ] Learn more about The Andersons involvement in the community.