Melissa Melo recalls a day in the summer of 2006, when a visit to a local outreach centre in Toronto introduced her to a woman she wouldn’t soon forget.
“I remember thinking that she didn’t look anything like I expected her to,” Melo said. “She didn’t have the typical face I would associate with a hungry person.”
The woman, nearly 60, had recently lost her job as a social worker.
“I know she was struggling to support herself and that things were pretty tight,” Melo said. “Although, from the looks of it, I don’t think anyone would have guessed it.”
The two met when Melo participated in Meal Exchange, a social justice advocacy group that raises awareness about hunger in Canada. Each year the group urges students to go into the community and interview people who face hunger every day. The project is called Portraits of Hunger and Melo, a University of Guelph-Humber graduate, took part in the summer of 2006.
“I was very eager to be part of it because I knew it had the potential to become something huge,” Melo said. When I spoke to this lady, I realized very quickly that she wasn’t the stereotypical face of hunger. So I felt that I needed to tell her story.”
Melo later transcribed her encounter with the woman into a monologue. She created a portrait of the woman’s experiences to illustrate the growing problem of hunger in Canada.
Leisha Zamecnik, a communications co-ordinator with Meal Exchange, emphasized the important role of the project in the community.
“The main purpose of Portraits is to bring awareness and reduce stereotypes,” Zamecnik said. “We want people to realize that hunger can have many faces.”
Melo made some startling discoveries during the interviewing process.
“One of the major things I learned from working with Portraits and through all the people I met, is that it’s not just lower income families or homeless people. Everyone is susceptible to hunger … I couldn’t believe the stories I was hearing.”
In particular, she recalls feeling shaken up after her conversation with the social worker.
“I remember going back to the office and just wanting to tell someone,” she said. “I mean no one would have guessed what she was experiencing.”
Zamecnik acknowledged that these experiences have added to the sensitivity to hunger issues in Canada. In fact, a local school decided to take it on as part of its curriculum.
“Bishop Strachan Secondary School has been working on the entire process as part of their drama course,” Zamecnik said. They are undertaking the entire process from the interview right to performing the pieces.”
Zamecnik eagerly awaits the first full performance of various monologues submitted in Portraits of Hunger. It will take place in Toronto this May.
“You know they say a picture is worth a thousand words,” she said. “But a story, an actual real story can literally move you.”
For more information on Meal Exchange and Portraits of Hunger, please visit http://www.mealexchange.com