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Camden Women Raise Hunger Awareness through Photo Project and Exhibit

June 11, 2013

The bleakest headlines about Camden, N.J. often name the city one of America’s most impoverished and most dangerous – a hopeless place. But in this small city, 10 women have taken up digital cameras to share their stories about raising children there.

These 10 women are the newest members of the Witnesses to Hunger community-based participatory research and advocacy project based at the Drexel University School of Public Health and they hope to combat childhood hunger by raising awareness about food insecurity in Camden.

Their photos and personal testimony of the experiences of hunger and poverty launched with an exhibit at the headquarters of the Campbell Soup Company in Camden. Campbell provided funding for the project as part of its $10 million, 10-year Healthy Communities program, which is working to reduce childhood hunger and obesity by 50 percent in Camden. The exhibit will be open to the public at Gallery Eleven One, located in Camden, in September.

Through their photos and interview-based testimony, Witnesses in Camden address topics of food and hunger; housing and homelessness; experiences with the welfare system; employment and education; and violence and safety in Camden.

The Witnesses explore both feelings of despair about the decline of the city they love and a desire to break the cycle of poverty and do something positive for Camden.

"I think a lot of people lost hope in Camden," said Beatrize, a working mother with a young son. "I haven’t, so that’s why I’m doing Witnesses to Hunger. It feels like this program has some type of hope for Camden. If it just changes a little bit of Camden, then I feel like it was a successful program." 

Witnesses to Hunger was developed in 2008 by Mariana Chilton, PhD, an associate professor and director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities at Drexel, to document the complex issues surrounding food insecurity, poverty and children’s health. Chilton formed this group to encourage participation of people who have experienced food insecurity and hunger first-hand. These mothers use digital cameras to frame the issues most important to them and their children. They use photographs and testimony to inform policymakers and make changes in their communities.

"Women who experience hunger and poverty first-hand are the true experts," Chilton said. "Their photos and their personal testimony of raising families in poverty in cities like Camden and Philadelphia tell us what no statistics can – a personal view on how their struggles are shaped by complex systems of low wages, housing challenges and public assistance programs."

"The Witnesses to Hunger project aligns with the Campbell Healthy Communities program, the company’s signature program focused on reducing childhood obesity and hunger," said Kim Fortunato, Director, Healthy Communities at Campbell Soup Company. "The Witnesses’ photographs not only elevate the discussion on hunger and food access in Camden but also give a voice to our community members who experience hunger daily."

Initially 42 women in Philadelphia were Witnesses to Hunger. The program has grown to include groups of Witnesses across the state of Pennsylvania and in Boston and Baltimore.

Camden became the fourth official site of Witnesses to Hunger in January. The Center for Hunger-Free Communities partnered with a Campbell Healthy Communities site, Respond, Inc., to recruit parents to the program.

In five years since the initial launch of the Witnesses to Hunger program, participants have traveled to the national and state capitols to testify before legislators, spoken with major media outlets, and been featured in a major documentary film.

"We’re excited to bring ‘Witnesses’ a homecoming of sorts, to Philadelphia’s urban neighbor across the river," Chilton said. "The Witnesses in Camden have shown us that many of their struggles are universal, and very similar to the experiences of people in Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, and across the nation."

Story originally published in DrexelNow

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