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Turning a camera on U.S. hunger

Mariana Chilton lives a world apart from mothers whose kids are

March 15, 2009|Pauline Arrillaga | Arrillaga writes for the Associated Press.

PHILADELPHIA — An office party goes on without her, across town in an affluent world vastly different from the one where Mariana Chilton now finds herself. Her husband's tried calling. Twice.

And still she sits in dress slacks and stocking feet, gray suede shoes tossed aside, on the drab carpet of a row house in the Philadelphia projects, playing with someone else's children while her own three kids wait for Mom to come home.

A mouse scurries by, but Chilton doesn't flinch.

She is listening, for the umpteenth time, as another mother speaks about what it means to be poor and hungry in America.

About how this mom scrimps and stretches by adding more than the usual amount of water to powdered milk to make it last. And how, at times, she makes chicken for her children but eats Oodles of Noodles herself. About the $50 left on the food stamp card that must carry this family two more weeks.

Tianna Gaines is her name. She is 29, black, with twin babies and a toddler, facing eviction because she's $300 behind on rent.

The government calls circumstances like these "food insecurity." Chilton knows the term well, although she can't personally relate to its consequences. She is 40, white, Harvard-educated, raised on Martha's Vineyard. She lives miles from here, in a nice brick house with a nuclear physicist husband and children who eat three square meals a day.

How she came to be in Gaines' living room, holding her babies and listening to her problems, is a testament to one woman's dogged determination to make a difference.

For years, Chilton directed statistical studies about food insecurity without hearing the stories of the people behind the statistics, without really recognizing what hunger means here, in her backyard and yours and mine.

And so the researcher handed out digital cameras to inner-city mothers and made them the chroniclers of a plight too often ignored. But her gift -- her real gift -- was something far more profound.

"Where is one of my favorite photos?" Chilton scans a wall of frames inside an exhibit hall at Drexel University. She stops at one, brushing the glass as if to caress the child herself. "Let me tell you about this kid."

The little girl, 15 or 16 months old, wears a striped top that swallows her tiny arms. Her nose is runny, her eyes empty.

Hers is not the picture of hunger that Americans are accustomed to seeing. She isn't emaciated, like those living in squalid conditions in famine-stricken countries, but she is underweight and malnourished, often fed chips and sugary drinks instead of milk and formula.

The very word "hunger" means something different in 2009 in America. It manifests itself in poor diets lacking in fruits and vegetables, in children who are fed fatty, cheap foods like hot dogs or ramen noodles and may be overweight but also hungry. It shows in a child's health, and in the everyday hard choices of mothers and fathers: Buy Pampers or formula? Pay the heating bill or put food in the fridge?

Even before the economy tanked, some 36 million adults and children struggled with hunger in 2007, including 12 million the government considers to have "very low food security" -- meaning they suffered a substantial disruption to their food supply at some point during the year.

The number of Americans receiving food stamps reached an all-time high last year, topping 30 million in September, October and November, even though the maximum benefit for a family of four -- $588 -- still falls $78 short of the cheapest possible government-established plan to feed a family that size.

President Obama, whose mother once received food stamps, has pledged to end childhood hunger; the administration's stimulus package raises food stamp benefits by 14%.

What bothers Chilton is that the numbers, startling as they are in a country as wealthy as this one remains, seem to do little to effect lasting change. And that's not an easy thing for a number cruncher to admit.

An epidemiologist, folklorist and assistant professor of health policy at Drexel, Chilton has spent the last five years conducting research on hunger. Her assistants would park themselves in an emergency room, gathering data from low-income mothers whenever a health crisis brought them and their children to the hospital.

Sometimes the interviewers provided phone numbers for assistance or shelters. But to Chilton, it just wasn't enough.

Four years ago, she helped launch a clinic that monitors nutrition in underweight children. And she frequently testifies before Congress about hunger. Still, her work left her with a nagging thought: "There's something greater that we could do here."

So when she learned in late 2007 that she'd won a $100,000 award, she ignored suggestions that she take a vacation and instead started work on "Witnesses to Hunger." She purchased digital cameras and distributed fliers to some of the mothers who had been interviewed over the years.

"Speak. Teach," it said. "We want to learn from you."

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