Pages from a diary: Portraits of hunger in New York City

A Journal of People report

A lot of things are happening in New York City. Fun, food, fashion, color, laughs. Poverty, hardship and hunger also. A few are peeking. A few are starring. The working poor are passing days. The rich are running with time. One group counts moments while another jumps ahead of time. One group compromises with time while another defies time. Which one is real? Are both of the groups real? Do the two make a whole real? Or does a surreal picture emerge? Or is it the real, not surreal?

An exhibition of photographs is now in New York. Its title is “Hidden in plain sight — portraits of hunger in NYC”. The photographs are by Brooklyn-based photojournalist Joey O’Loughlin. She earned a master’s degree from Columbia University’s School of Journalism.

Joey O’Loughlin’s one character in the photographs is Emily Diac, 5. How many citizens in the city know Emily? May be a lot, may be a few.

Emily used to have to wait while her mother shopped at a food pantry in Queens. Her family has relocated to Marietta, Ga., where her mother, Mina Reyes, works at Sam’s Club and her father works as a maintenance man. Life in Queens was unaffordable for Emily’s family. One in four New York City children doesn’t have enough to eat. Reyes didn’t want Emily or her brothers to be part of that statistic, so they left the city.

What facts of life does Emily know? May be nothing; may be hardship. Can Emily smile? What’s the color of sun to Emily? Or color of the moon?

Joey’s another character is Maria Rodriguez. Maria is a stroke survivor.

Maria’s apartment – a warm and peaceful home – sparkles.  Food from a pantry helps Maria care for her three school-age relatives while their parents work in the Dominican Republic. The children are Ysabella, Yocet and Diana. Every night the children set the table with the food collected from pantry. Is it happiness? Is it fighting hunger with indignity? Is it mercy? Or is there stroke of cruelty? Is there disgrace? Is there love? Love is there. Mercy is there. Hope is there. A hopeless situation is there.

Joey O’Loughlin’s lively works with light and shadow, with pains and hopes are presented in the exhibition by Food Bank for New York City and Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS). The photographs show location and people in food pantries in New York City. Hundreds of persons receive free groceries. The exhibition is at the Brooklyn Historical Society, a place of learning rich with historical reading material. The photo exhibition will continue up to mid-November.

The exhibition will raise awareness about food poverty in the city, which always bears signs of opulence. But Joey O’Loughlin’s photographs present a devastating reality of New York life.

Story of a photo is of Patrick, 46 years old and disabled by AIDS. He lives alone in subsidized housing on Staten Island, and depends on food pantries.

He never completely regained his footing.

Patrick was in the military; but discharged in a less-than-honorable manner. He worked for Housing Works for years.

Another story tells: On Saturday mornings, Brandon, a 4-year-old and his family make a four-mile round trip to collect food at two Queens food pantries. Brandon’s spirit is high. A promising spirit.

Thousands of people stand in line at food pantries in the city. It is an everyday business. They wait for hours. It is their patience for free food. They wait for a bag of groceries. How many person-hours are spent for mere survival in a month? Is it productive? Is this a part of the city’s economy? Waiting in front of a pantry is part of normal life for families whose incomes can no longer bear the cost of living.

Joey O’Loughlin is not only a photojournalist. Her photographic work and narrative skills support social justice and humanitarian efforts in the U.S. and many countries.

She is a writer with more than two decades of experience in news, informational and cultural programming also.

One of her photographs say: Mae Tate is a hard-working seamstress in her 60s. Now she works out of her apartment, day and night, seven days a week, but she doesn’t earn enough to make ends meet.

The cost of living in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn is now so high that Tate can’t afford to shop in the local supermarkets. A one-bedroom apartment in this neighborhood now rents for about $2,000 per month. Pantry helps her. It is an economy. It is a modern and advanced economy, but it can’t help all. Is it real? Is the inability its strength or weakness?

Story of another photograph is of two brothers – Gregory and Shamar, 12 and 14 years old. For them, it was a long day. Along with their uncle, Otto Starzman, the two boys were up at 4:30 a.m. and helped to set up and break down two food pantries in two boroughs.

Each week, a pantry distributes thousands of pounds of food to the hungry. Many volunteers in the pantries also depend on the pantries to feed their own families.

It is said:

“While most food pantries work hard to ease the experience, lining up for food can be dehumanizing. On the line, you’re both on display and socially invisible, but at home, you’re like everyone else.”

A report said:

“For nearly three years, Joey O’Loughlin documented the people behind the statistics by photographing and interviewing clients at Food Bank for New York City’s network of food pantries – the last line of defense against hunger for New Yorkers in need – to reveal the people who run them, and the people who wait in their lines. Through these images, O’Loughlin asks the question, ‘What would you be willing to do if you couldn’t afford to feed your children?’”

It’s an important question for all the hungry. It’s also an important question to all in the human camp? Do all in this world address the question of hunger? What’s the source of hunger? Why many people fail to afford food for their children? Is food afforded all the time in a dignified way?

In May, New Yorkers from across the city raised their voice at City Hall to call for increasing funding for the Emergency Food Assistance Program. Why the citizens had to raise their voice for the hungry? Doesn’t the system care for the hungry?

A photograph from Vaad Hakol Pantry, Crown Heights, finds:

Pantry lines form before the sun rises; people are anxious to get the best offerings – fresh food priced out of reach in supermarkets. Sometimes the wait is three hours – a tedious, but dependable option for feeding a family.

Dependable? Yes, dependable. An organization provides food when the system fails to ensure it.

Dina Garcia, one of the photos by Joey O’Loughlin tells, is a 42-year-old mother of two little girls and a 26-year-old son with three children of his own. She’s resourceful and navigates a challenging life with upbeat resignation. She lives in the Bronx and works in a grocery store bakery on the Upper West Side. The girls go to a charter school near her mother’s apartment on the Lower East Side. Garcia, a lifelong minimum-wage earner, visits pantries for groceries and sometimes goes to a soup kitchen that offers family dinners.

Food is not ensured by working as Dina Garcia shows.

“People are always shocked to learn that one in five people on our pantry lines has a job,” said Margarette Purvis, president and CEO of Food Bank for New York City. “No one wants to believe that you can work your entire life and still not be able to afford food. The myth is, they did something wrong. The fact is, they didn’t. Children, the working poor and the elderly on fixed income are the most severely affected by hunger. These are the faces highlighted in this exhibit in order to combat the myths about hunger.”

Joey O’Loughlin writes:

“It’s not easy to stand in a food line; it’s a very public display of personal challenges, but it keeps families nourished, and together. The growing food lines in every borough of our city are something we cannot deny – millions of New Yorkers are falling down in this uneven economy.
“I wasn’t aware that there were food lines around the city, and assumed they were a thing of the past until I started this project three years ago. I see the lines now, and the people who stand in them; they are fellow citizens with fully realized lives. They stand in line because things haven’t turned out as they planned, and a bag of food from a pantry is a soft spot in a hard time.”

There’s a collective effort by the hungry to survive. One photograph in the exhibition says:

Grandmothers are familiar faces on the pantry lines. Nora Balfour is 74 years old and a great-grandmother, but she still calls her husband “Lover” when he calls her after church. He’s in Jamaica while she’s in the Bronx with her son, his wife and their children, helping them keep the family together. Balfour’s son is a security guard, and his wife is a home-health aid. Both jobs offer low wages and hours that vary wildly.

It is said:

“Nearly one in five New Yorkers relies on Food Bank for New York City’s programs and services. During the past year, the organization has seen the need for emergency food in New York City increase while the resources required to combat hunger and poverty have decreased. The number of meals that vulnerable New Yorkers are missing due to lack of sufficient resources tops a staggering 241 million, representing an enormous meal gap.”

The meal gap has been adapted as the city’s official measure of food insecurity.

It’s a nice city. Here is a lot of wealth, and here is hunger. Here some people are running for luxury – greed, and some people are spending their time to feed the hungry. Here, in the city, some people can find ways to earn a lot, and some people don’t earn enough to buy food, and the city moves on with its own logic.



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