I recently interviewed three photographers who covered hunger in America for the feature “The New Face of Hunger” in the August issue of National Geographic magazine. They explored what it looks like for individuals and families to be food insecure in urban, suburban, and rural areas of our country.
Stephanie Sinclair photographed families in the Bronx, New York, who are classified as “food insecure”—meaning they need assistance, either from government programs and/or food banks to get the food they need. She talks about some of her experiences in the video and conversation below.
COBURN DUKEHART: So can you tell me a little bit about this story? How did you end up working in the Bronx for this particular piece?
STEPHANIE SINCLAIR: So my editor, Susan Welchman, called and asked if I was available. It was a chance to work with Amy [Toensing] and Kitra [Cahana], which was fun—it’s always fun to work on a combined project, because you’re always working a little solo.
They wanted me to do something in an urban setting. So we looked at Baltimore and Philadelphia, but I was interested in doing it in the Bronx for a couple of reasons. One, because I live in New York and I spend so much time traveling and working on assignment that I don’t really spend a lot of time there. Also, I knew that there was a food insecurity issue in the Bronx—it’s got the highest rate of food insecurity of any other county in the nation.
COBURN: What was your level of knowledge about food insecurity in America, and did you have any notions about what you might find on this assignment?
STEPHANIE: Well, I definitely know that the wealth disparity in the U.S. is extreme, so I wasn’t surprised to see what I did in the Bronx. I wish I had been, but our country has such an inequality of wealth and disparity in jobs and wages.
Also New York rent is notoriously, ridiculously high—I found that most of the rents were around $1,500 [per month.] So if you make minimum wage, you’re already struggling to make ends meet. It’s just very unforgiving.
I found the people to be very resourceful, which was good, but I also found them to be very proud and very much more ashamed than I anticipated.
COBURN: You’ve worked all over the world, but have you done a story like this in America before, or was this new for you?
STEPHANIE: It’s been a while since I’ve done a story like this in the U.S. I used to be a newspaper photographer. I worked for the Chicago Tribune and other papers around the country, and I’ve lived in Detroit and worked in Detroit, so I’ve definitely seen families in poor situations in the U.S.
But what’s interesting is I did a project a few years ago on malnutrition in India, and it was about farmworkers, and how food is grown there. They don’t feed their kids the right foods [nutritionally], because they make more money selling it. And then to see what’s happening with farm subsidies here, and that we’re not taking care of our own people and they’re eating the wrong foods too, it’s really interesting, because India is still a developing country, and we are supposed to be the most prosperous country. So to see that we have the same problems—that was more astonishing.
COBURN: So tell me about the families that you worked with on this assignment. What was your experience working with them?
STEPHANIE: I worked with two families, and I met them through an amazing organization called “Part of the Solution”. They are a nonprofit in the Bronx, and they have a food pantry and a soup kitchen diner, and what I really liked about them is they treat people with dignity. Their dining room is very much set up as a restaurant, so people don’t have to feel ashamed to come in there. People serve them. They look them in the eyes. That was really nice.
And the food pantry is set up with good healthy food. So they have a lot of vegetables, a lot of fruits, and they very much believed in the story we were working on and were very helpful in finding our subjects for the story.
One of the people I photographed was a man named George. I met him in the dining hall, and he was there with his young son, Alexander, who was 4. George is 68 years old, and he has four kids. He wears a nice jacket, and he looks like he really tries to take care of himself.
And I really wanted to kind of break some of the stereotypes with my part of the project. I wasn’t focused on people who were homeless. As a photographer, we have to communicate visually, so I was trying to break some of those stereotypes.
So I asked if I could follow him around for the story, and he was very enthusiastic. He was once a street vendor but then could not afford to have the license, so he got shut down. And since he has all these kids, he just felt it was easier to take his Social Security and take care of [them.] His wife has some issues and can’t do it.
They spend most of their time going from soup kitchen to soup kitchen, and he feeds his kids that way. And even his older kids are so used to it that they go without him. And I wondered what it must be like to be those kids. When are they going to look back and think about how they had dinner with their families?
COBURN: So was their situation surprising to you? Because I think one of the preconceptions some people may have, is that food-insecure people might be lazy, or they’re not working hard enough to get food—and clearly, he is working very hard to make sure that his family has enough to eat.
STEPHANIE: Yeah, I was surprised at how difficult it can be, Like one of the times he was out getting food, it was at seven o’clock in the morning. It was the day before Thanksgiving, and it was raining, and there were probably 30 to 40 people in line at this pantry, and they had to wait in the rain. And then they finally opened the doors at 9:15, and they started giving the food out at 10:00. So it’s three hours, it’s 2-1/2 hours of standing in the rain, and it was cold. So it’s not like you just show up and don’t have to worry about it.
It’s definitely an effort, and he has mapped out where all the free meals are in the area. So that was surprising. I didn’t realize that the food situation was so bad for some people that they not only had one meal a day, or a couple meals a week, provided by somebody, but they really went from place to place to place to get all of their meals like that.
COBURN: So tell me about the other family that you worked with.
STEPHANIE: I met another wonderful family from Gambia, and Ceesay is 31 years old, and she has eight kids, and she’s not educated. She was married in Gambia and came to the U.S. And, you know, she very much wasn’t in control of how many kids she had.
She was really lovely, and the family was very open, and when we met them, they had already run out of food for the week. That was because she had asthma, and she couldn’t make it to the pantry.
When I got to her house she had invited her sister over who had nine kids. And there’s a photograph that I have where all the kids are finishing off a bowl of chicken, and that was the day that they had run out of food, and a neighbor brought a box of chicken wings and legs over.
COBURN: Was there anything for you working on this story that was challenging, either personally or logistically? What were some of the challenges that you faced?
STEPHANIE: Well, getting in touch with people consistently was difficult, because phones are not something that’s a high priority when you don’t have enough food for your family. And finding families that were willing to share their story was difficult, because there’s a big stigma towards not having enough food and needing food stamps and free meals and pantry services. It took some time to get cooperative families—people who weren’t so ashamed with their situation.
COBURN: Were there any themes that came out when you were working with these families? Did people say: “If only I had this, then things would be better,”? Were they able to see a solution? Were you able to see a solution, or is it just too complex?
STEPHANIE: Everybody wanted jobs that paid decently. I think that that was the problem—if there were jobs, they didn’t pay enough to justify not being able to take care of their kids or having to pay for daycare.
And, you know, if you make just enough that you don’t get Social Security or food stamps, then all of a sudden, you’re still in the same situation. You just actually have a job instead of being at home with your kids. So for a lot of people, the low pay was a struggle, especially in a place like New York where we have such a high cost of living.
COBURN: So what do you hope that viewers will take away from seeing your pictures and from seeing this story?
STEPHANIE: Well one thing I really liked about seeing Kitra [Cahana] and Amy [Toensing’s] work with this, is it really shows the diversity of the types of people that food insecurity and hunger can happen to. And I hope that everybody can see themselves in it, or a relative, and that they can say: “You know, that could be me.”
There’s all kinds of things that could happen to people, and their lives go from being stable to being very insecure. And that’s what I hope—that people can see themselves in this and not pass judgment. I hope that we’ve shown enough stories and enough variety that everyone can see something that they relate to and be motivated to support change that makes families more secure. We shouldn’t be a country that is so prosperous, yet have so many people struggling.
Read the feature article “The New Face of Hunger” from the August 2014 of National Geographic.
The May issue of National Geographic magazine, kicked off an eight-month series about the future of food.