Lifeline: Hunger Relief During the Pandemic

The ArtsCenter  | Online through Feb. 15

Lifeline: Hunger Relief During the Pandemic, The ArtsCenter’s first online exhibit of the year, takes a close look at the local food distribution channels that are fighting food insecurity during the pandemic.

Chapel Hill photographer Tom Simon’s 35 quietly emotional photographs capture weekly food distributions across the Triangle by organizations like The Produce Box and PORCH-Durham. The series sheds humane light on the workers behind these donations—and the people who rely on them. The INDY reached out to Simon to learn more.

INDY: How did you get the idea for this series?

TOM SIMON: I have been volunteering for both Meals on Wheels and PORCH for several years, and over the last three or four years, I have been doing volunteer photography for PORCH. During the pandemic, they [have been] involved in weekly food distributions along with the town of Chapel Hill. I began to get curious about where all the food was coming from and who was involved in it.

I realized that this food folks were picking up was an incredible lifeline for them and the last step in a chain of human activity that began on farms and ended with a box of food in their trunk. I wanted to examine that human chain to see how the food got there, and to find all the people who were involved. I wanted to learn more about the people beyond the final stage of food distribution and to follow some of these people home to photograph them feeding their families with the food they got. If you look at the show, it ends with people at home either cooking or serving food to their families.

How did you pick which food distribution locations and organizations to photograph?

I wanted to look beyond Chapel Hill. I had been in touch with folks at the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina, and I knew I wanted to shoot at a food bank. Then I started talking to people who were involved, asking them to recommend others. I started calling and emailing organizations explaining what I was doing, and virtually everyone said they would love to be a part of it. I met some amazing people.

What have you observed about how local food insecurity and hunger are changing during the pandemic?

There was a greater awareness of it. Yet, at the same time, it was an incredible struggle to deliver food to people in the midst of a pandemic, as many of the volunteer organizations were relying on volunteers who typically worked very close to each other. When I was a driver at Meals on Wheels before the pandemic, we were delivering one hot meal a day to clients. They couldn’t do that anymore, because they wanted to limit exposure for the volunteers and recipients, so they had to switch to delivering five frozen meals once a week. On top of that, many volunteers are older and most vulnerable to the pandemic, so the volunteer core was diminished as people were concerned about their health—and people had to adapt to that.

What do you hope to showcase to the community through these photos?

I wanted to put a face on hunger. People go online and see shots of endless lines of cars crawling through a distribution center, or they see an interview with one recipient. There wasn’t much exposure for the volunteers, so I wanted to put a face on that as well. In Chapel Hill, you are living in a bubble. It’s seemingly an affluent comfortable community, but there is a huge amount of economic disadvantage and food insecurity here that people don’t see, and I wanted that to come to light, too.

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