According to Kalamazoo Loaves and Fishes – a local nonprofit and food pantry - one out of every six people in the Kalamazoo area struggles with food insecurity.
But for the other five out of six, the problem can seem almost invisible. So, Loaves and Fishes decided to give some of their food pantry clients’ cameras – to document food insecurity they see in their own lives. The result is a photo exhibit at the Epic Center called Shifting the Lens: Exposing Local Food Insecurity.
Jimmy White started going to the pantry after moving here from Pennsylvania in 2011. He says he doesn’t work right now because he’s still recovering from an old injury that never healed. Twelve years ago White was working for a fire escape company and fell six stories.
“I broke both my legs. I lost half of my right feet. I broke this arm in eight places, that’s where the scars came from. If you look hard you can see the pins still in there,” he says.
But White kept working. He had a newborn and a four year old to take care of.
“So I literally had been back to work after a week. My feet had been amputated and it had only had been cut of a week and I went back to work. And I literally had a shoebox on my feet. My girlfriend in the morning used to take duct tape and tape a box around my feet so that my bosses wouldn’t know that I was injured when I went to work,” says White.
Now that White can’t work, he says Loaves and Fishes have helped him – and some of his family members – to get food on the table.
For the exhibit, White took a picture of his granddaughter, Crystal, blowing out the candles on her 1st birthday cake. White says the whole family chipped in to throw Crystal a party—something he never really had growing up.
White’s photo shows a success story, but many of the others are not as hopeful. Loaves and Fishes Executive Director Jennifer Johnson points out a photo of a veteran eating out of a dumpster.
“You know it’s a sad picture for all of us. It was a hard picture for us to see, but our client advocate was pretty adamant about, you know, this is the reality,” she says.
Another photo appears to be a woman casually walking through a park. Loaves and Fishes Annie Sajid says the woman is friends with the client who took the picture.
“He’s like, ‘What are you doing here?’ And she’s like, ‘I’m trying to forage for food because I know people had a picnic here earlier that day,’” Sajid explains.
And of course, there’s photo after photo of the food itself. These photos answer the question Sajid says we all seem to want to know: What are people who get food assistance eating? Sajid says there’s no one answer to that. Some people eat healthier than others and some have more time to cook—just like every other American.
“Where is the scrutiny coming from? Why are we so focused on making sure that we monitor what people eat and when they eat it? And why is it specifically for low income communities and communities of color?” Sajid asks.
At least two of the photos in the exhibit show clients making healthy food from scratch. Others show how little they have to work with. Like one picture of a client’s cabinet, stocked with only cans and boxes because she can’t afford a full size refrigerator.
“I think part of our exhibition is to kind of debunk some of these myths of—it’s not just processed food, it’s not just because people do not understand nutrition or they just don’t have the education. But this is the reality that they have to live in order to survive,” says Sajid.
Jennifer Johnson says food insecurity can happen to anyone. Many of us go through times where money is tight. The difference is that when something comes up, people who are food insecure don’t have any money to fall back on.
“And when a car breaks down, they don’t have the money for the bus today, or any of those things—it really does devastate their day, their week, their month," she says. "And so to withstand unexpected expenses means a lot of different things to a lot of different clients that we serve. But it is a balancing act and one little thing that throws that balance off can mess with the whole situation.”