District residents view photographs of local poverty in the “Witness to Hunger” exhibit hosted by Martha’s Table Jan. 14. (Photo by Shantella Sherman)

Martha’s Table hosted the “Witnesses to Hunger” exhibit Jan. 14, showcasing photos by District residents who find themselves suddenly living hand-to-mouth, and unceremoniously cast aside by city officials.  The exhibit details, with pinpoint accuracy and heart-wrenching insight, college-educated, formerly self-sufficient residents, struggling to cope with government-sponsored development, including the loss of more than 30,000 affordable housing units, replaced by luxury apartments in an eight-year span (2002-2010).

Nefatera McQueen knows all too well the stigma attached to poverty in D.C.  In addition to being thought of as lazy, syphoning-off-the-system, and somehow responsible for being unable to meet the demands of her bills, most Americans believe that the inability to pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps – an inherent inability to cope – stands as the core of poverty, she said.  But for McQueen, a college graduate with a biology degree that has garnered little more than student loan debt, nothing could be further from the truth.

“I am a full-time worker with full-time jobs, only the money I earn doesn’t meet the bills, and believe me, I am not living above my means with some extravagant lifestyle.  It is really hand to mouth,” McQueen told the AFRO during the exhibit’s opening at the THEARC in Southeast D.C.  “My photos show and prove that the stereotype of lazy, uneducated women with a mountain of children and no ambition, is a boogeyman used to misinform and encourage those who can change the system to ignore it instead.”

Ignoring the problem, according to the Center for Hunger-free Communities, has allowed the rates of hunger across the nation rise to include more than 45 million people – which for District of Columbia residents is roughly 1 in 5 people living at or below the poverty threshold of $19,100 a year. And like McQueen, whose salary places her a few dollars above the threshold, many have been rendered ineligible for food subsidy programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

The District’s distinction of having the third highest food costs in the nation makes matters worse, according to Ryan Palmer, director of stakeholder engagement of Martha’s Table.

“This exhibit brings the message home that those facing poverty are not just sitting around waiting for a handout, they are working really hard at two and three jobs,” Palmer said. “There are issues of access to quality services and products because living where you can afford often means being situated in food deserts where fresh food and groceries, are not available. exhibit photos document these issues and gives a voice to the people who took them as their own advocates.”

Witnesses to Hunger is a research and advocacy project with additional sites in Philadelphia, Camden, Baltimore, New Haven, and Boston.  The Witness to Hunger exhibition at THEARC will run until Jan. 31.