Photos from the front lines of hunger displayed at State House to spur action

What does hunger look like?

For one mother in Boston, it’s a freezer with a bag of brussel sprouts and little else—to feed a family of six.

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Eight women in Greater Boston who live with hunger and poverty while raising their children were armed with cameras over the past year to photograph their daily experiences.

The project, called Witnesses to Hunger, was developed by a collaboration of public health advocates and researchers to spur legislation aimed at ending poverty and hunger.

The mothers’ photos and their descriptions—of empty shelves, trash-strewn parks, and their children’s hopeful faces—will be exhibited in Doric Hall at the State House starting March 12.

“In some ways, parents feel like failures when they are not able to put food on the table,” said Dr. Megan Sandel, an associate professor of pediatrics and public health at Boston University School of Medicine, and a pediatrician at Boston Medical Center. “I’ve seen a mother start crying and you will see a child consoling their parents.”

Physicians at BMC are part of Children’s HealthWatch, a national network of researchers who track children’s health, and it was Sandel’s counterparts at Drexel University’s Center for Hunger Free Communities in Philadelphia who started the Witnesses to Hunger project.

Sandel said that the photos are a view of the seemingly impossible trade-offs mothers in poverty face daily—rent or medicine, heat or breakfast, diapers or fresh fruit.

Children’s HealthWatch data from BMC show more hungry and dangerously thin young children are coming to the emergency room than at any time in more than a decade of surveying families.

Before the economy soured in 2007, 12 percent of youngsters age 3 and under whose families were randomly surveyed in the hospital’s emergency department were significantly underweight. In 2010, that percentage jumped to 18 percent, and the tide does not appear to be abating, Sandel said.

Children’s HealthWatch is awaiting the latest numbers from 2011.

Researchers said that often policies and programs are created without the participation of those who are most affected, so they’ve organized meetings with legislators next week to allow the women to show and tell what they’ve witnessed.

Sandel will be among the public health specialists at those meetings and she said she will be detailing how Massachusetts’ high cost of housing is intertwined with children’s hunger.

“It’s not uncommon for these families to spend half of their income on housing,” Sandel said, “leaving little for food, or anything really.”