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Eric Aft: The Wisdom of Dorthea Lange’s America

Updated: Aug 29, 2019

The Wisdom of Dorthea Lange’s America (On exhibit at Reynolda House Museum of American Art through December 30, 2018)

While statistics on poverty were not kept back in the 1930s, we know that the challenges faced by many of our country’s families were immense. Unfortunately, today too many families face similar challenges to put food on the table. In fact, 1 out of 7 individuals and 1 in 5 children face hunger and food insecurity – meaning they are unsure where their next meal is coming from.

At Second Harvest, we often share statistics with you to provide a context and a sense of the depth of the challenge we face when we talk about the reality of hunger and food insecurity. It is important that we convey the wide reach and serious health risk that hunger presents our communities. But the fact is that hunger doesn’t feel like a statistic… instead, it is a challenge that feels intensely personal.

When we view Dorethea Lange’s most famous photograph, Migrant Mother, we don’t doubt that its subject, Florence Thompson, only sought a better life for herself and her seven children. We are confident that the uncertainty of each day ate away at her as she held her baby and tried to focus on the positive for her older children. The truth is, Ms. Thompson truly is no different than the mothers who face similar uncertainty today even though the circumstances and lens by which we see poverty may have shifted.

I know from our work at Second Harvest that there are countless Florence Thompson’s in our communities who only seek the best for their children and the hope for their future.

In a similar way, the unnamed man who is the primary subject of Lange’s White Angel Breadline could be the face of any one of the thousands of individuals who visit the 29 soup kitchens Second Harvest supports across our region. When Lois Jordan opened our nation’s first soup kitchen in San Francisco during the Depression, I very much doubt she envisioned that this approach to caring for her fellow man would exist so many years later. Sadly, it is a reality we still face.

While we may never know the thoughts running through the mind of the gentleman in White Angel Breadline, I’m confident that he had many hopes for himself and his loved ones. The reality is that while we don’t know his name, he is not actually nameless but a very real person with a very real story. Each person who comes into our partner pantries and soup kitchens today also has a name and a very real story. Today, in collaboration with our partner agencies, Second Harvest works to ensure that no one is nameless and that we acknowledge and lift up the hopes that they have for the life that they seek for themselves and their families.

I hope you take time to go and view the exhibit and reflect on how we view poverty today versus these images from our history. Can we view today’s images with the same compassion that we feel when we view the photos from 90 years ago?

From our work, we know that mothers and fathers today have the same dreams, the same hopes as Florence Thompson had for her children. With the stark images of the Depression etched into our minds – maybe this is what we think poverty ‘should’ look like; however, we know that poverty today is much more complicated than even these powerful images can portray.

Our work at Second Harvest is rooted in the belief, as our dear friend Clyde Fitzgerald surely would say, that hunger is unacceptable, today as it was during the Depression.

Our commitment is to make the path of those we serve a little easier; to create room for our children to thrive in school and throughout their future. It is to provide our adults the opportunity to select a path that is not barricaded by choices between rent and food or heating their home and food or medicine and food. It is to provide seniors the comfort of knowing that they will have the food they need when their doctor instructs: do not take this medication on an empty stomach.

We thank you for helping us create a future that is more promising and more hopeful for our community’s children and families.

Thank you,

Eric Aft CEO Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina

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Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest NC

3655 Reed St. 

Winston-Salem, NC 27107

Tel: 336-784-5770

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