The many faces of food insecurity: Exhibit at Forbes Library shares diverse stories of access issues in our community

Community Story Archive organizers from the Hampshire County Food Policy Council admire one of the posters that will hang at an exhibit at Forbes Library in Northampton from June 6-28. From left, Robby Armenti, Talya “T” Sogoba, and Kristen Whitmore.

Community Story Archive organizers from the Hampshire County Food Policy Council admire one of the posters that will hang at an exhibit at Forbes Library in Northampton from June 6-28. From left, Robby Armenti, Talya “T” Sogoba, and Kristen Whitmore. CONTRIBUTED photograph

By JACOB NELSON

For the Gazette

Published: 05-30-2024 3:02 PM

Modified: 05-31-2024 6:56 PM


History is everyone’s story. Its lessons can inform a bright future for everyone, but only if we truly listen to everyone.

For almost a year, members of the Storytelling Circle of the Hampshire County Food Policy Council (HCFPC) have been collecting stories from local residents about their food-related experiences during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. These stories show how our community meets the needs of some, but not all, and suggest how things could be different.

With the debut of HCFPC’s Community Story Archive, these stories and the lessons they hold will be on public display. An exhibit at the Forbes Library in Northampton opens with a public launch celebration on Thursday June 6 from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. An online archive housing additional materials ensures even more public access.

The purpose of the Community Story Archive is to inspire a deeper commitment to food justice in local communities. When someone is food insecure, it means they don’t have reliable access to enough of the food they need to live a full life. Food justice is a vision of the alternative: a world where “all people are empowered to live more joyful and gratifying lives through access to affordable, healthy, locally grown food of their choice,” as imagined by the HCFPC.

Stories have long been a tool for inspiring social change, according to Alexandra Mello, one of the project’s core organizers who lives in Northampton. “Humans are hardwired for story,” she says. “We are inundated with information every day, but stories cut through the noise and allow us to connect with one another.”

Most stories in the archive come from people who face food insecurity themselves yet come from groups often ignored in public decision making. That includes public housing residents, low-income parents, people with disabilities, youth, immigrants and senior citizens.

“These are people with direct insight into what’s working and what needs to change,” says Mello. “Their knowledge can and should be incorporated to create human-centered solutions that serve everyone.”

Kristen Whitmore of Northampton is another project organizer through her role at the Center for Educational Services, a nonprofit that supports the HCFPC. She agrees, adding, “we see opportunities for legislators, public officials, and organizations who care about food justice to listen to these stories and better understand the issues communities are facing.”

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According to the Greater Boston Food Bank, food insecurity in Massachusetts rose more than 55% between 2019 and 2020 as the COVID-19 crisis began. During that time, about 1-in-2 Black or Latino adults faced food insecurity compared to 1-in-4 white adults. For organizers, this spike in unmet needs and related disparities offers an important time frame to reflect on.

Today, many families face the same or similar obstacles as in 2020. More than 9% of Hampshire County residents are food insecure now, according to the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, and the causes are complex. Beyond racial disparities, class and geography, such as whether someone lives in downtown Northampton or in a rural Hilltown, also influence what an ideal of food security would look like for them.

Recognizing the many faces of food insecurity and food justice, stories for the archive were collected from a diverse group of people. The Forbes Library exhibit will feature snapshots of 24 community members’ lived experiences, each represented by a hanging panel with quotes and images. A QR code on each panel leads to a web page with audio clips, photos, artwork and a recording of the full oral history they shared.

While the aim is to open their neighbors’ eyes, several organizers say gathering these stories shifted their own perspectives as well. Among them, Roz Malkin of Chesterfield offers a poignant reflection. “For me, the most important part of collecting stories was being in the moment with the other person,” she says. “Sitting with them and hearing their truth, who they are, and what matters to them.”

“Stories are how we all make sense of who we are, what we want for our lives and what the world is about,” Malkin continues. “We need to hear what these folks have to say, because they are the experts on what changes are needed. They have a right to be heard and to be empowered, knowing that others are truly interested in their experience.”

The Community Story Archive exhibit at Forbes Library will be displayed in the reading room from June 6 to June 28. Starting June 6, the web archive will remain indefinitely on the HCFPC’s website: hcfpc.collaborative.org.

Paired with the exhibit, the HCFPC is planning a teach-in event called “Storytelling for Social Change” on June 26 at 5:30 p.m., also at the Forbes Library. This interactive workshop will help participants explore the power of storytelling in pursuing justice and equity in their own communities. The event is free, and dinner will be provided. Registration is required at tinyurl.com/HCFPCrsvp.

The HCFPC also invites community members to get involved with local food justice work by joining one or more of their working circles. Currently there are 12 circles with focuses ranging from advocacy to supporting community gardens and more. Those interested should visit the “Get Involved” page on their website.

Jacob Nelson is a writer and educator with experience covering food, energy and sustainability across the Northeast.