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Carrboro exhibit highlights 'lifeline' of hunger relief in the Triangle

The Food Bank of Central and Eastern NC estimates over 750,000 people are facing hunger in its service area. One-third of them are children. Photo courtesy of Tom Simon

A virtual photography exhibit from Carrboro’s Art Center is highlighting the community’s response to COVID-19-induced food insecurity in the Orange County area.

The exhibit, called “Lifeline: Hunger Relief During the Pandemic,” is scheduled to run through Feb. 15. 

Creator Tom Simon, a retired television producer and documentary filmmaker, said while doing volunteer photography for the hunger-relief group PORCH Chapel Hill-Carrboro, he realized weekly food distributions were the last step in a chain of community outreach.

His curiosity was the catalyst of the exhibit.

“I wondered where (the food) came from and what the next steps were,” Simon said. “I realized it was kind of a lifeline for people, hence the name of the show.”

The exhibit portrays the journey of food from farms to the hands of those who need it, all facilitated by the work of volunteers.

“I basically decided to see if I could trace the steps back through the chain, beginning with where the food came from and the people that were involved,” Simon said.

Debbie Horwitz, one of PORCH’s directors and founding members, said the group serves the food insecure population of Chapel Hill and Carrboro in many ways, including a fresh food program that delivers to 500 local families.  

Horwitz said Simon has been involved with the organization for many years, and the pandemic provided more opportunities for him to capture the effects of food insecurity. 

“Tom was there pretty much at every turn, quietly photographing all of our efforts, and then at some point he very deliberately started reaching out to get the whole chain of the process from producer to table,” Horwitz said. 

Spencer Bradford, executive director of Durham Congregations In Action, said Simon also worked with End Hunger Durham to capture some of the moments featured in his exhibit.

“What I’ve seen was very impressive about capturing the spirit of neighborliness and mutual support in these senior communities, that was at the heart of what we were organizing and supporting,” Bradford said.

Bradford said End Hunger Durham has offered activities, grassroots food organizations and educational programs to combat hunger, but has more recently focused on building relationships with senior citizens in the community. 

Horwitz said even pre-pandemic, food insecurity was an issue in Chapel Hill, but job loss has worsened the problem. 

“We seem to live in a very affluent community, but we have many people who are keeping the community going — cleaning the University, working in the local restaurants and doing very important jobs — but not really making enough money to be able to support themselves,” Horwitz said.

Simon said through his project, he wanted viewers to see the humanity of the area’s hunger problem. 

Horwitz said viewers of Simon’s exhibit are able to connect to his subjects through his photographs. 

“I think one thing that was unique about Tom and his work is that he really has an amazing ability to capture photos that are really beautiful in composition but also really capture the humanity in his subjects,” Horwitz said. “You feel the desperation and the appreciation in the photos of the recipients, and you also feel a sense of purpose and connection among the volunteers.” 

Simon said that is what he focuses on as a photographer, and the Lifeline exhibit was no different.

“Overall, I’m interested in documenting the human condition. I’m really interested in people and the stories that they have to tell,” Simon said.   

Simon said the project was a life-affirming experience for him.

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“I think it really kind of reaffirmed my faith in humanity," Simon said. "The fact that the people who are receiving food are just trying to keep their families whole during a really difficult time. Many people have lost their jobs, and this food is really a lifeline for them.”