The 22 8-by-10-inch photographs are simply set in a display case in the airy lobby of the Denver Public Library's central branch. On an early Saturday afternoon, men and women, old and young, stroll by on the marble floors. A few glance at the images — portrayals of lives lived with hunger — but so far today no one stops.
Most never see the stories just beyond the glass, much the way many never see the hunger hidden among us every day.
“It's something I hear a lot since I've been talking to people about poverty — `You're not the average homeless person; you're not the average hungry person,'” says Caroline Pooler, 53, who came to know hunger and homelessness after losing her job two years ago. Three of the photographs in the case are hers. “There really is no average hungry or homeless person. They can be someone who's working full-time and they're not going to get lunch that day because they have to give lunch to their kids.”
Caroline and nine other women are participating in Hunger Through My Lens, an innovative project by the advocacy organization Hunger Free Colorado that gave them digital cameras to document how they see a world without consistent and healthy sustenance.
The goal is simple, project manager Lauren Flax says: Give the experts, those who know what it's like to be hungry, a platform to voice their opinions and help shape answers to what should be a solvable issue.
“We really believe there is a solution to ending hunger,” Flax says. “Just as there are many solutions, there needs to be multiple people coming up with them. Who better than the hungry?”
The women are a diverse group. They are Latino, African-American and white, ranging in age from 22 to late 60s. They are mothers and grandmothers in Jefferson and Adams counties, Denver and Aurora. Some have lived in systemic poverty since they were children. Some live an “average, normal, middle-class life but they go to bed hungry every night, hiding it even from their church groups,” Flax says. Some have made bad choices, either through lack of education, access to resources or circumstances.
But all share the common denominator of having experienced the isolating and desperate hunger that comes when you don't know how or when you'll have your next meal. Through their photographs, they hope to provide a glimpse for others — perhaps a dawning understanding — into that world.
“It's a way to put faces to statistics,” Flax says. “It's easy to forget a number. It's a lot harder to forget a face or a story.”
First, the statistics, compiled from various federal and state reports:
• One in six Americans in the U.S., and nearly one in four children, are food-insecure.
• More than 25 percent of working families in Colorado don't have enough food to meet basic needs.
• An estimated 270,000 children in Colorado, or 22 percent of all children, live in food-insecure households.
• Colorado has the fastest-growing rate of childhood poverty in the country.
The numbers are astonishing.
And here are Caroline's stories, told in her photographs, which she titled:
• “Reverse Disparity,” a photograph of two banana clumps. One is full, fresh and smooth yellow, selling for 59 cents a pound in a grocery store in an affluent neighborhood. The other is in a smaller, privately owned grocery 30 blocks away in a neighborhood considered a “food desert” because it has no large supermarkets offering healthy options within a mile. These three bananas are slightly bruised, for sale at 89 cents a pound.
“I'm certainly not faulting that grocer,” Caroline says. “We need that grocer in that area.” But lower quality food for higher prices is the reality.
• “Farming for Food Sustenance for the Heart.” A close-up of an orange nasturtium, taken in an urban garden in which Caroline was working.
“I really did find that while I was on my hands and knees trying to feed myself, people in suits and briefcases were looking in and wishing that was them. I am the lucky one in so many ways,” she says, “pulling my food from the ground.”
• “Ancestral Meals.” A photo of a Cambodian family's ceremonial meal, spread out in bowls and prepared in honor of ancestors for a holiday.
“It's an inside look at the diversity of the culture here in Denver and Colorado and how those cultural food needs must be met as well,” Caroline says.
Although Caroline began struggling when she lost her job working in a medical research office, she initially resisted applying for food stamps, turning instead to urban gardening as a way to feed herself. She took the bottle cap- and cigarette-strewn lot of a friend and began tilling and planting the soil until it flowered into an organic garden in which she harvests tomatoes for a nearby bodega, and lettuce, squash, eggplants and green beans for herself. A nonprofit restaurant, which operates on donations, uses her produce to cook her lunch.
Local food banks also helped. But last November, one turned her and others away when it ran out of food. The memory still brings tears. “I just walked down the street and cried, more so for the thought of the moms that were turned away.”
Shortly after that, she applied for food stamps. And “it has been a blessing to go to the grocery store and really meet my nutritional needs.”
An artist also, she considers her work with Hunger Free Colorado among her most important. The organization offers training on how to advocate for hunger issues before local governments and agencies to those who, like Caroline, want their voices to be heard and want to make a lasting difference for others in their shoes.
In October, Caroline starts a school program she hopes will lead to a job that can provide her with the stability to provide not only for herself, but also for her 24-year-old son, who despite his job still finds himself hungry at times.
“I would like to buy groceries every two weeks and take them over to his house,” she says — just the way she used to.
Back at the exhibit at the library, a woman glances at the photographs as she walks by. She slows down, and backtracks for a closer look.
The photo of a hand-scrawled sign — “Will Work 4 Food” - caught her attention.
“It just made me want to look,” Susan Wolinsky, 71, a retired lawyer, says. “I just think it's pretty sad that in this country people don't have enough to eat … People who have full stomachs have a better chance of being productive citizens and of helping others.”
She was surprised to find out she was one of only two passersby in an hour who had studied the exhibit, which will travel to four Adams County libraries, the 16th Street Mall in Denver and Hunger Free Colorado's Oct. 1 Hunger Summit.
“It's too bad,” Wolinsky says, “that some of the photographs aren't on billboards towering over the city so that people have no choice but to look at them.”
Indeed. That would put big faces on the big numbers that are hunger in Colorado.
Ann Macari Healey's column about people, places and issues of everyday life appears every other week. She can be reached at email@example.com or 303-566-4110.