Children making s’mores, picking strawberries and eating ice cream cones. Families sitting down to baskets of fried clams and sizzling burgers hot off the grill. Farmers’ market stalls brimming over with freshly-picked vegetables and fruits.

The portrait of summer food is vivid, comforting and photogenic. This Tuesday, Mariana Chilton wants to paint an image of food that is at once more subtle and less pretty — but certainly no less important. Ms. Chilton, formerly of Vineyard Haven and currently an assistant professor at the Drexel University School of Public Health in Philadelphia, is the founder and director of Witnesses to Hunger, a combination research-documentary-advocacy project seeking to increase awareness of child hunger.

And instead of relying on data crunching and statistics to meet this end, Ms. Chilton and her team go straight to the experts. In 2008, they gave small Canon PowerShots to 40 Philadelphia-area mothers of low-income families and asked them to photograph their own experiences. Since then the program has expanded to other cities in the Northeast, been a guest of Pennsylvania Sen. Robert Casey at the Senate Rotunda, and embarked on a photo exhibition tour.

On Tuesday, Ms. Chilton and two of the witnesses (one from Philadelphia, one from Providence) will visit the Vineyard Haven Public Library to share their stories and present a collection of photographs.

Depression: “The depression and the sadness really just come from my harsh life. It’s discouraging and it’s hard.” — Mariana Chilton

“I realized that not enough people were paying attention to child hunger in America and had no concept of the magnitude of the problem,” Ms. Chilton said in a Tuesday interview with the Gazette. Many people, she continued, associate hunger with swollen bellies and hunting for food in trash bins, although in reality, the issue “is much more subtle than that.”

“People who are hungry hide it very well,” she continued. “They don’t want [others] to think they’re struggling.”

The hidden aspect of hunger is part of what prompted Ms. Chilton to bring the exhibition to Martha’s Vineyard. Having grown up on the Island, she was already aware of the scope of hunger here, and after volunteering last summer with Betty Burton of Serving Hands, she became more convinced that the Vineyard “would be a really important place for people to reveal what’s truly happening . . . I want everybody to see that hunger exists everywhere.”

Libraries: “They don’t see a lot of different things. They don’t run into a lot of different cultures or a lot of different people from different backgrounds.” — Mariana Chilton

Hunger in America takes many forms — according to the USDA, 17.1 million households were “food insecure” in 2008, meaning they lacked access to enough food for an active and healthy life — and is largely marked by tradeoffs. Families often find themselves in the position of choosing between paying for rent and utilities or paying for food (the “heat or eat” phenomenon, as Ms. Chilton describes it). In some instances, such as that of Philadelphia Witness to Hunger Imani Sullivan, who will speak on Tuesday, choices must be made between working a few extra hours and earning more money — and risking being over the poverty line and no longer receiving food stamps.

Witnesses to Hunger hopes to “break down the barriers between those who have and those who have not,” said Ms. Chilton. By using photography as the main medium — and the first-person experience as the main narrative — the project is able to offer access to the lives of low-income families that is otherwise not possible.

Neighbors’ kitchens: “You never know what goes on behind closed doors. Some people need to know exactly how we’re living being single moms, being that we’re on our own and we don’t have that many opportunities.” — Mariana Chilton

But the real goal of the project is not simply to show the problem of hunger; rather, it is to solve it. “It’s not ‘Look at me, look at this problem,’” said Ms. Chilton, “but what can we do about it?”


Mariana Chilton and the Witnesses to Hunger program will present a talk about the exhibition Photographs by 40 Mothers from 7 to 9 p.m. on Tuesday, August 10 at the Vineyard Haven Public Library. For more information, visit