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A witness to hunger

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2017 - Spring


At the annual Hunger & Homelessness Auction, Yale students hear firsthand what it’s like to be hungry.

Last autumn, on November 17 at Café Med, the crowd at the School of Medicine’s 24th Annual Hunger and Homelessness Auction grew quiet as Kim Hart, a 55-year-old lifelong New Haven resident, came to the microphone to provide a firsthand look at what it means not to have enough to eat. Hart, who lives in the Beaver Hill section of the city, took her listeners back to 2011, a harrowing moment when the only things left in the cupboard were “a two-pack of ramen noodles, a half loaf of bread, and some peanut butter and jelly.” She used what she had to feed her then-11-year-old son.

“I was hungry,” she told the audience, “but I didn’t eat until he’d had enough.”

The modest meal over, the boy looked up and said that while he was grateful—he knew other people had less—he wished they could have meat. “As a mom, this broke my heart—he shouldn’t have to live like that,” Hart said quietly, tearing up at the memory.

There’s a photograph from that time—a snapshot of a youngster with sad and haunting eyes—that was part of a recent exhibit called Witnesses to Hunger CT at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford. The program featured images and stories from 15 state residents, each among the one in seven Connecticut residents who, according to End Hunger CT, regularly don’t get enough to eat. Six years ago, Hart and her son became statistics.

“We were comfortable,” she explained in an interview with Yale Medicine. “My husband’s disability check paid the rent, we had food stamps, and I was working part-time as a telemarketer. We didn’t have a lot, but we had enough.”

In 2011, Hart’s husband passed away suddenly, and making ends meet proved a struggle without his income. Later that year Hart’s job ended when the telemarketing company moved to Indiana.

With a meager unemployment check the only money coming in, Hart’s life became endless treks to the area’s food pantries. “Once you dig yourself in, it becomes so hard to get out,” she said. But Kim Hart is nothing if not a consummate optimist, and the first thing she did was confront her diet. “I became educated about food, and the more I learned, the angrier I became,” she said. “I realized that the food I should be eating and feeding my son was not what I could afford.”

The organic aisles in the local supermarket might have been out of reach, but Hart learned how to make healthier choices with what was available and to cook in a healthier way. “I don’t fry anything anymore, and while it took a while for my son to accept this, we now both know it’s for our own good and not to punish us. Whole-wheat pasta, rye and pumpernickel bread, a baked sweet potato—the darker the food, the more nutritious,” she declared. “I wasn’t taught this growing up, but now I embrace this.”

Hart soon learned to visit local farmers’ markets where, she discovered, she could double the purchasing power of her SNAP benefits and buy fresh fruits and vegetables. (SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which replaced what were once called food stamps.) “The fact that I could get two pounds of collard greens for $1.39 instead of one pound … it was a big secret and not advertised, but since I learned this trick, I tell everyone I know,” Hart said.

She has also turned this ongoing education into political activism. She was appointed to the New Haven Food Policy Council, the city government’s volunteer advisory group that, according to its mission statement, works to “build a food system that nourishes all people in a just and sustainable manner.”

Hart is involved in such council efforts as a partnership with the American Heart Association’s ANCHOR program to help improve the already-existing food pantries. “We’re telling people about the importance of good eating and heart health—how it all ties together,” she said. “Everything starts with knowledge.”

Hart is also working on programs to end food insecurity, including a proposal to start a supper program in area schools. “A child in need might eat lunch at school, but there may be nothing to eat at home,” she said, counseling physicians to ask their patients about food availability and hunger issues. “You can’t learn anything if you’re hungry—in the long run, ignorance is very expensive.”

Despite the seeming intractability of the problems she continues to face, Hart remains upbeat. “I am a woman of faith,” she declared. “Hope and faith keep me going.”

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