LA nonprofit raises awareness of hunger in a new way: a big rig

More than one in eight people struggle with hunger every day in America. That's about 42.2 million people who grapple with food insecurity on a daily basis, according to Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger. 

The Los Angeles-based nonprofit hopes to create awareness of the plight of these Americans in a new way. Mazon this week launched a somewhat unorthodox traveling exhibit to drive that message home. Tucked inside a 53-foot-long double expandable tractor-trailer unit, "This is Hunger" will hit 15 cities in 10 months.

Michelle Stuffmann, a developer of Mazon's new exhibit, told KPCC that the organization hopes the exhibit's mobility will allow them to raise awareness about what individual Americans can do to help feed hungry families.

At first, Mazon started with the idea of developing a traditional touring museum exhibit, Stuffmann said. But when the nontraditional idea of putting the exhibit in a semi truck came along, they jumped at the idea.

"The truck is an amazing vehicle — pun intended — to rally people into the fight against hunger," Stuffmann said.

The focal point of Mazon's mobile exhibit is a kitchen table inside the trailer, where visitors can sit and listen to the stories of hungry people. Barbara Grover, a documentary photographer hired by Mazon, spent weeks photographing and interviewing "food insecure" Americans from all walks of life to create the trailer's internal multimedia experience.

​A recording of David, a teenager, tells visitors about how he quit baseball so his mom wouldn't have to pay for a uniform. Whitney, an unemployed senior citizen from Mississippi, lives on $958 a month in Social Security and struggles to find a job. Hearing those kinds of voices, Stuffmann said, is tremendously motivating to someone who might be able to help feed them.

In a 2015 report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that 15.8 million households are "food insecure." Of those households, 6 million people have "very low food security," which means they experience daily limited access to food and irregular eating patterns. Though high, those numbers are significantly lower than the number of "food insecure" families in previous years, according to the report.

"First and foremost, we want people to raise their voices about hunger and let people know it is an issue that is important to them and that it is an issue to vote on," Stuffmann said. "Then, the most important thing that any person can do is demand that their elected officials protect SNAP."

SNAP, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, helps feed millions of hungry Americans. It's a federally funded program that Mazon said could have an uncertain future under President-elect Donald Trump.

In a statement on its website published last week, Mazon vowed to continue its mission no matter what policy or funding changes lie ahead. The statement claims that Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress have said they would introduce legislation that will drastically change and gut vital programs for Americans rely on those programs, including SNAP.

"Our concern for hungry people would really be the same no matter who was going to be sworn in as president in January," Stuffmann said.

The exhibit's first stop is Los Angeles, where the tractor-trailer exhibit will be open until mid-December. Tickets are free to the public.

KPCC (NPR affiliate) | November 17, 2016