Hidden in Plain Sight: Hunger in New York City
When author Kathryn J. Edin arrived one recent evening at the Brooklyn Historical Society to talk about her book, $2 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, she did so against a backdrop of photographs of New York’s working poor, shot by photographer Joey O’Loughlin. The two had more in common than the shared space and the subject matter. Side by side, their work compounds the effect of black-and-white data converging with the stories of real people.
“In my work, I spend time with individuals. You have a very different perspective when you spend time with people in their homes and you talk to them at length,” O’Loughlin said. “Something like $2 a Day really resonates when someone that you like is having that challenge.”
Working with the Food Bank for New York City, the city’s major supplier of food to more than 1,000 community-based programs, O’Loughlin spent more than two years hanging around 15 food pantries throughout New York City. Her show, Hidden in Plain Sight, reveals portraits of people suffering with hunger and poverty that don’t match the images many hold in their minds of what it means to go without.
“It doesn’t look like Depression-era photos of people in the dust bowl. It doesn’t look like people in Africa. It doesn’t look like people you could just easily identify as poor because they are well turned out, and they are invested in not letting you know that they are not in a good place,” she said. By and large, the people O’Loughlin met were low-wage workers. But she also met artists, writers, people with master’s degrees, and others who had lost their jobs in high-paying fields such as advertising. But as O’Loughlin said, “Life throws curves, and it seems like more people aren’t able to manage those curves.”
It’s not just a local problem. Across the country, 100 percent of food banks responding to a Feeding America survey reported an increase in demand for food assistance in 2015 at a rate ranging from 29 percent to 38 percent. Ninety-nine percent of food banks and distribution agencies reported seeing more first-time users in the last year. More Americans are teetering close to the edge. When asked in a survey by the Federal Reserve Board how they would pay for a $400 emergency, 47 percent of respondents said they would cover the expense by borrowing the money or selling something or that they would not be able to come up with the cash at all.
“I wasn’t aware that there were people standing in food lines all around New York City,” O’Loughlin said. “I knew that there were people in need. I knew that there were soup kitchens. I knew that there were homeless people. It didn’t really hit me until I saw the work Food Bank was doing. It sort of dawned on me: These are food lines. These are bread lines. This is stuff from the Depression.”
In all five boroughs, people arrive early and wait, sometimes as long as two or three hours, for a bag filled with $30 worth of groceries. The average city food pantry serves 1,800 clients a month. More than half of all pantries operate on an annual budget of less than $25,000, and a third of them keep the doors open with less than $10,000.
“It’s freezing cold. They’re lined up before the sun gets up. Some of them are old, and some of them have kids, and it’s hot, and there’s nothing to do, and you can’t sit down.”
Some of the volunteers at pantries are patrons who would rather help out than wait on the line. One picture shows Gregory and Shamar Starzman, then 12 and 14, catching a moment of rest after a day that started at 4:30 a.m. The brothers spent the day helping their uncle Otto set up, break down, and distribute food at two pantries in two boroughs.
“They feel productive, and they get to take a bag home. You wouldn’t know it to meet them,” O’Loughlin said. “People are well dressed and friendly, but they do take a bag home at the end of the day. They need it too.”
Food pantry provisions were originally conceived as emergency rations, but they’ve come to serve a regular role in the lives of working people who can’t keep pace with the cost of living in a rapidly gentrifying city. One in five people in New York City rely on food pantries and soup kitchens, and the majority of visitors are women.
“When I started to look around, I came to understand how many of them are working, and how many are working women, and how many are working mothers,” O’Loughlin said. “I was really startled.” Despite the grim statistics, O’Loughlin sees hope at the pantries—both in the kindness of the volunteers and in the promise of a meal waiting at the end of the line.
“It’s grim in black and white, but it’s a little less so in color,” she said. “When you’re actually with a group of people, you see what they’re like.” The more time she spent with people, the more personalities—funny, loud, private—revealed themselves. “It becomes much more real, and that’s something I’m trying to transmit.”
O’Loughlin sees the conversation about hunger following the national dialogue on other issues that were not previously spoken about, such as police brutality and sexual assault.
“Maybe it’s not going to be so hidden anymore,” she said. Maybe as people start talking about it and seeing the pictures of well-intentioned, nicely turned-out people, they’ll feel more comfortable speaking out. The more people who give voice to it, the more likely we are to change policy.”