February 2012

Tackling Hunger In A Big Way

Angela S., a mother of two young children, wants to get people off welfare. “The key is to get people off welfare,” she says. “You don’t want this to keep being a repeated cycle. It seems like it’s a repeated cycle, and it gets worse.”

Angela is a witness to hunger and part of the Witnesses to Hunger research and advocacy project being led by Dr. Mariana Chilton, an Associate Professor in the School of Public Health. Witnesses to Hunger gives a voice to mothers who are raising children on a limited income in difficult situations. The women use digital cameras to photograph their experiences of hunger and poverty. Through their “photo voice,” the women inform government policymakers about the need for legislation that can end hunger and poverty.

“The deprivation of food and housing is much greater than we thought,” Dr. Chilton says. “It is more accepted in this country than anyone can fathom.”

Witnesses for Hunger started in Philadelphia in 2008 and has expanded to Boston and Baltimore. Dr. Chilton, a recognized expert on child hunger, launched the project. Witnesses for Hunger is part of the ongoing research of Drexel University’s Center for Hunger-Free Communities. The Center’s work is aimed at developing solutions to the challenges of hunger and economic insecurity. In addition to Witnesses for Hunger, the Center coordinates the Philadelphia site of Children’s Health Watch, a surveillance study that monitors the health of children under four.

Children’s Health Watch involves a network of researchers in Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, Little Rock and Memphis. They collect data on children during a critical developmental period when even mild-to-moderate under-nutrition can have long term negative consequences. In Philadelphia, more than 5,000 caregivers have been interviewed. The study, started in 1998, provides the largest dataset in the nation on food security and the development of young children living in poverty.

Children’s Health Watch has had a significant impact on the nation’s public policy helping demonstrate, for example, that “food stamps are a form of medicine and are keeping our children healthy”, Dr. Chilton says.

The Witnesses for Hunger stories are also playing an important role in telling a story that needs to be told. The photographic exhibits have been displayed in the Russell Senate Office Building and some of the mothers have testified before Congress, as has Dr. Chilton. The women talking about their photos is a form of public discussion of hunger and poverty, Dr. Chilton says.

“The women want people to walk in their shoes,” Dr. Chilton explains. “They feel judged by the world and very isolated. They want to be seen as human beings who have the same desires.”

Dr. Chilton is committed to participatory-led research such as Witnesses for Hunger. The project has been transformative. “You can’t do this research and walk away,” Dr. Chilton says. “We have to make sure we are helping people as much as we can as well as understanding their situation.”