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Witnesses to Hunger—Philadelphia Women Photograph Poverty
In tribute to African American History Month, I am honored to highlight my hero, Tianna Gaines-Turner.
Tianna embodies strength. She prioritizes the well-being of her family, not only by working three jobs to provide for their needs, but also by advocating for them. Tianna is a member of Witnesses to Hunger in Philadelphia—volunteers who were born into cycles of poverty they aim to end. Find out how Tianna and the Witnesses to Hunger are teaching people through their intimate experiences of hunger in this excerpt from the 2012 Hunger Report:
Tianna Gaines-Turner and her family live in one of the most distressed neighborhoods in the city, the Frankford neighborhood in northeast Philadelphia. In some neighborhoods of Philadelphia, as many as half of all residents live below the poverty line. She and her husband are raising six young children, and the family is dogged by hunger most of the time.
The family moved here two years ago when they were offered subsidized housing after spending 10 years on a waiting list. On their first day in the new home, Gaines-Turner was sitting on the stoop with her children when a man approached from the sidewalk and told her to take the children and go inside. She understood what this meant and complied at once. Minutes later, the street exploded in gunfire.
The Gaines-Turner family has benefited from federal nutrition programs. Gaines-Turner has participated in Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), her eldest child receives subsidized meals at school, and the whole family has participated in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) from time to time as their income fluctuates. Currently, Tianna is the sole breadwinner in the family, working a combination of three jobs. Her husband, Marcus, was laid off during the recession and has not been able to find work.
Tianna Gaines-Turner was featured in a series of articles in the Philadelphia Inquirer about hunger in the city. She is part of Witnesses to Hunger, a research project developed by Children’s HealthWatch and led by Dr. Mariana Chilton of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities at Drexell University’s School of Public Health. Witnesses launched in 2008 with photographs taken and stories told by Philadelphia women living in poverty.
“Speak. Teach.” read the invitation to participate in the project. “We want to learn from you.” The women who participate in Witnesses know what it means to be hungry and are better teachers than anyone. As a Witness, Gaines-Turner has spoken a number of times to various groups of people who want to understand hunger in the United States.
The images that convey hunger to those who know it most intimately are often not the images that other people might associate with hunger. Hunger through a Witness’ eyes may be a blood-soaked sidewalk, reflecting the dangers of walking from home to the grocery store. Hunger could be a triptych of bus stops, because that’s what it takes to get to a store with healthy food choices.
Many of the Witnesses volunteers were born into poor families where hunger was a constant presence. In many ways, hunger stole their childhoods from them, and now as adults, they are raising families that continue to battle hunger. “They are the ones who actually have the answers,” said Chilton. “Families are not just passive recipients of aid and advice. They are purposeful agents [who] want to break the cycle of poverty and despair, and they have a variety of needs.”
Witnesses was born out of Children’s HealthWatch, a multi-city research project that is studying the effects of hunger on the health and well-being of young children. Chilton serves as the principal investigator of its Philadelphia site. The project screens children in emergency rooms and ambulatory care clinics at five medical centers around the country—good places to initiate contact with the children and their parents since undernourished children have higher rates of hospitalization. At each Children’s HealthWatch site is a GROW Clinic, which treats children with “failure to thrive,” the clinical term for a child who is severely underweight for her age. If failure to thrive goes untreated, the consequences are lifelong, because so much of brain development occurs in the first years of life.
“In the GROW Clinic,” says Chilton, “there is a pediatrician, nutritionist, psychologist, and social worker on staff, and the social worker and psychologist are the most important members of the team.” She cites a Children’s HealthWatch finding that children in families on a waiting list for a housing subsidy were 52 percent more likely to be underweight than those whose families had the subsidy. “Hunger is about so much more than food,” she says. And it is more than physical anguish; it punishes its victims mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. “It’s horrible when you see your kids not eating,” says Tianna Gaines-Turner, “and you say to them why aren’t you eating and they say because we want to make sure you can eat, Mommy.”
An analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows that SNAP lifts more families with children out of poverty than any other assistance program except the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). About half of all Americans will receive SNAP benefits at some point before age 20. Among African-Americans, the figure is 90 percent. Low-income working families find it difficult or impossible to budget for these items, because all their resources are simply consumed by day-to-day needs. SNAP and other nutrition programs, on the other hand, come through for low-income families all year long.
+ Join the Witnesses to Hunger from May 2-4, 2012 at their National Conference on Hunger and Poverty, Beyond Hunger: Real People. Real Solutions.
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