Hamden Hunger Project

A blue, green and white illustration of a male figure caught in a blizzard

J

ust down the street from the Mount Carmel Campus, a handmade sign outside Grace and St. Peter’s Episcopal Church on Dixwell Avenue declares Friday night as “Dinner for a Dollar.” For an hour each week, the basement of this Hamden church becomes a pop-up restaurant with a hot buffet, a table stacked with bread and enough folding chairs for 60 people.

In contrast, the university’s dining team serves nearly 9,000 students, faculty and staff on a typical day across three campuses. Choices are abundant.

Hamden resident Christy Czekaj is a regular at “Dinner for a Dollar.” Her visits began after she and her husband retired and took in their two grandchildren. Although the couple’s fixed income fell short, they made it work somehow. A resourceful Czekaj turned to “Dinner for a Dollar” at the church with the bright red doors. “These people welcomed us with open arms,” Czekaj said. “There were weeks when we came, and we didn’t have a dollar.”

For 17 students studying community-based journalism last spring with professors Amy Walker and Courtney Marchese, testimonials like the one from Czekaj became a social awakening and the validation for the Hamden Hunger Project, a multimedia deep dive into the issue of hunger in Hamden. Czekaj was among a living quilt of storytellers interviewed by students as part of their reporting.

Food insecurity — the lack of reliable access to food — isn’t just a problem in America’s cities and impoverished pockets of Appalachia, the students learned. It’s a problem everywhere, including Hamden.

“Some of the people are homeless. Some of them have mental disorders. I really wanted to tell their stories, but I felt like I didn’t belong at first, that I almost didn’t have the right to tell their stories,” said Samantha Bashaw ’19, who will graduate with a master’s degree in journalism this spring. “The Hamden Hunger Project made us feel uncomfortable — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

Hunger doesn’t end with a thoughtful meal or a bag of groceries, Bashaw and the other students discovered. There remains a hunger for dignity, an innate hunger for respect that transcends race, gender, age or other classifications.

In a 2019 study commissioned by the United Way of Greater New Haven, researchers learned nearly 1–in–8 adults and 1–in–6 children in Hamden experience food insecurity. Other numbers were just as alarming. Almost 42 percent of Hamden’s schoolchildren were eligible for free or reduced lunch during the 2016–17 academic year.

And yet, that’s only half of this hunger story. Hamden is a town bisected by a line roughly south of Hamden Plaza. Below it, household income, unemployment and access to food affect people in measurable and often unforgiving ways. Above it, household income often tops $100,000 and families are usually smaller, with greater economic agility.

The United Way’s study — “Facts and Faces: Food Hardship in Hamden” — is illuminating in its conclusions. Limited resources mean limited options. Food competes with medicine, rent, heat, child care, transportation, clothing and other expenses.

“According to the Brookings Institution, income inequality in the Greater New Haven Region is among the highest in the country,” the study states. “From 2006–12, the gap between the region’s rich and poor expanded at a rate three times faster than the national average and much faster than statewide growth in income disparity.”

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Hitting the Streets

For a long time, these statistics lived on anonymous spreadsheets. But a collaboration between the School of Communications and the New Haven Independent website shed light on them. Suddenly, the Hamden Hunger Project and hamdenhungerproject.com were born.

The initiative was funded by a $35,000 grant from the Online News Association with support from the Excellence and Ethics in Journalism Foundation, the Knight Foundation, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, the Democracy Fund, the Scripps Howard Foundation and the Rita Allen Foundation.

“I don’t think students necessarily realize how valuable local news is to a community,” said Amy Walker, an assistant professor of journalism. “I feel it’s our duty to teach students how to cover different types of communities — and to do it in ways that include voices they may not usually hear.”

So instead of filling a COM 400 class with journalism theory, Walker built a deliberate syllabus to explore food insecurity in Quinnipiac’s backyard. Marchese added to the content creation with two students from her data visualization class.

The multimedia curriculum touched every base. Students wrote stories and created videos. They took photographs and produced audio storytelling, including unfiltered food insecurity testimonials recorded in a story booth at the Hamden Public Library, a storytelling model fostered by the Listening Post Collective.

A journalism student wearing a purple vest interviews a woman wearing a bright pink shirt at a Hamden community center

In the story booth, people shared how it felt to shop the shelves of a food pantry, to apply for food stamps through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and to live with food insecurity every day.

“It’s a special opportunity when the students are just starting to develop a broader world view and a better understanding of their local community,” Marchese said. “To see the discovery in their eyes when they come across new data, and they talk to people in the community who are being affected by hunger, that’s the best. They learn how to make the data human, how to put faces on the story and make it more meaningful.”

Marchese and her students designed billboards overlooking Dixwell Avenue in Hamden to help hungry people find healthy food. Framed in orange rectangles, these billboards wondered aloud in boldface type — “Looking for a Hamden food bank or pantry? Text HUNGER to 888111 for locations near you.”

Kaylin Bracey, a senior chemistry major and journalism minor, spent Saturdays on the other side of that text chain, her thumbs at the ready to load a list of food banks and pantries. Other students took shifts, too. Most people wanted to know where to get healthy food in Hamden. Sometimes, the texts sought help finding food in New Haven or North Haven.

Bracey, who grew up in Hamden, also spent time interviewing patrons and volunteers at Christ the Bread of Life Mobile Food Pantry for her class article. The church sponsors the food pantry with the Connecticut Food Bank on the second Wednesday of each month in Hamden.

“To be honest, I really didn’t know about the hunger issue in Hamden before taking the class,” Bracey said. “Amy was the one who told me about the mobile food pantry. I actually wrote my article about it after I volunteered there a couple of times and talked to some of the people there.”

The conversations were profound and stirring, Bracey said. They provided a glimpse into the lives of people who rely on the generosity of others to fill their refrigerators and cupboards.

“I have some food, but sometimes I run out,” said food pantry patron Karen Person, 65, who recently retired from Yale New Haven Hospital after 37 years. “And then sometimes, I don’t have enough cash on me to get it, so [the food pantry] works out.”

Thinking Outside the Box

But what if you don’t have a car and can’t get to the food bank? Or you can’t grab a CT Transit bus or hail a rideshare service? Marchese, an associate professor of interactive media and design, often considers those same questions. She worked with students on data visualizations — easily absorbed charts and graphics — for the Hamden Hunger Project and the United Way report.

“One of the more surprising things about the study was transportation. That really jumped out at me,” said Marchese, pointing out that 22 percent of the people in southern Hamden don’t have a consistent way to get to the store or the food pantry. “Of course, these people are all hungry. But if you don’t have access to any of these places, how are you going to eat?”

This is the reality for many facing food insecurity. The struggle is never one-dimensional.

Wynton Borders, MS ’19, and Rick Lessard, MS ’19, wrote about the “Voices of the M.L. Keefe Community Center” in Hamden. They enhanced their work with poignant audio interviews. One man, Adrian Curry, was unabashed in his support of the Keefe Center as an essential resource for those facing hunger and other challenges.

“This is the best thing that ever happened to Hamden,” Curry said. “It gives me a place to come and work for the community and myself. If I can come in and plant some tomatoes, some collard greens, some kale, etc., it will give me something to do and a way to help the other people.”

For her part, Bashaw photographed some of the Keefe Center patrons and shared anecdotes of hope and resilience across Hamden. Her writing and images liberated people from tired labels and boxes that never tell the whole story on income eligibility forms.

“I loved working with this community. This project really explored what journalism can be and maybe what it should be.”
Michaela Mendygral '19

Bashaw also coordinated with Sue Hudd, a sociology professor, to bring donated produce from ShopRite in Hamden Plaza to the Keefe Center food pantry. Every Tuesday morning, Bashaw and Hudd drove to the back of ShopRite and wedged, stuffed and stacked almost 40 boxes of bananas, pineapples, onions, tomatoes, squash and other produce into Hudd’s Honda SUV and Bashaw’s Toyota Camry.

“Sometimes, when people see produce in the store that’s a little bruised or a little tarnished, they’ll pass it up and go for something better,” Bashaw said. “The produce we collected was perfectly fine. It was perfectly healthy. If we didn’t take it, it would’ve just been thrown out.”

Hudd said the ShopRite program began last year after students in her class, Social Stratification, did a needs assessment for the Keefe Center. After crunching the numbers, it became clear people yearned for fresh produce. So Hudd approached ShopRite to develop a partnership.

“To me, this is what sociology is supposed to be,” Hudd said. “We identified a need and then we looked at both sides of the issue. Social inequality is an emphasis of social stratification.”

Walker and Marchese also worked with Sujata Gadkar-Wilcox, an associate professor of legal studies and director of the Global Engagement Fellows program, and Sean Duffy, executive director of the Albert Schweitzer Institute and a professor of political science. Students in the Global Engagement Fellows program are studying food insecurity with Gadkar-Wilcox. Duffy, meanwhile, serves on the Hamden Food Security Task Force in addition to his other roles. Duffy said there is anecdotal information that some Quinnipiac students struggle with food insecurity. The university has formed a committee to explore the issue and plans to survey students about their own food insecurity experiences.

An illustration of a man holding a spoon and fork with his bib revealing a mother and son standing in a street

“The seed for all this really came out of conversations with Sujata and Sean,” said Walker, a former Albert Schweitzer Faculty Fellow along with Marchese and Gadkar-Wilcox. “We’re always looking for new ways to explore issues with our students. When I learned that 60 percent of teachers in Hamden kept food in their drawers for students, that stuck with me — and I knew it was something we should be covering.”

Amplifying Awareness

Chris Roush, dean of the School of Communications, is eager to see more issues-driven reporting projects. In fact, the first three episodes developed by the new Quinnipiac University Podcast Studio explore food insecurity in Hamden. The episodes were produced by Ben Bogardus, an assistant professor of journalism.

“One of the most critical results of [hunger] is that some people are making hard choices,” Roush tells listeners in the debut episode. “They’re choosing not to eat well in order to pay their bills.”

The refrain is all too common and all too painful in Hamden. While many student interviews took place at food banks and church dinners, others were held at bus stops and Hamden Plaza.

The Quinnipiac University Podcast Studio is a natural platform to share that work more broadly.

“The importance of podcasting continues to grow and evolve,” Roush said during a recent interview. “It’s one of those things that every communications school around the country needs to be thinking about. I look at the podcast studio here as us being at the forefront of that commitment to powerful storytelling.”

It’s precisely that approach to innovation that appealed to Michaela Mendygral ’19. She didn’t study design and journalism at Quinnipiac to be silent and passive. She wanted to be curious, driven and challenged.

“I love working with the community,” Mendygral said, “and this project really explored what journalism can be and maybe what it should be. It’s a give-and-take process, especially when you’re doing solution-based journalism.

"Are you crossing a line when you ask people for their quote, their story? They really don’t get much in return except for being in the story. But I feel like we gave people some of the most basic information they should have — where to find fresh food for themselves and their families.”

For Paul Bass, the collaboration between the School of Communications and the New Haven Independent was greater than the sum of its parts.

“I love this project. Really, Amy did all the work with her students,” Bass said.

“They did some terrific articles that we published [at newhavenindependent.org]. For us, it’s such a great way to connect with a journalism school and work together to reach the same people in different ways. That’s my favorite way of interacting, where the students get to run with their ideas and explore things in new ways.”

Walker said the Hamden Hunger Project was intentionally designed to force students to consider their community on a deeper level. But it also was meant as a mandate for today’s newsrooms.

“Newsrooms need to do a much better job with diversity so they can better cover the diversity around them,” Walker said. “It’s a priority for me that we don’t ignore parts of Hamden. We need to actively look for opportunities to report on important public issues like food insecurity. That’s where we can make a real difference as journalists. This story is just one part of that.”