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Barbie Izquierdo Fights Hunger

Barbie Izquierdo at the National Hunger Free Communities Summit. (Amanda Lucidon)

While in the middle of one of the scariest, most stressful days of her life, Barbie Izquierdo took her first step toward becoming an advocate.

The Philadelphia mother and her two children had been living in an unheated apartment, and the cold temperatures were exacerbating her infant son’s chronic eye problems. After months of doctors’ visits, Barbie was told her baby, then three months old, would need surgery to correct the problem, or risk losing his sight.

Each time Barbie took her son to the hospital for his eyes, she was encouraged to participate in a survey and answer questions about her life and living conditions—a woman from Drexel University asked whether she had heat in her house, a working stove, enough to eat. Barbie usually found the questions intrusive, but on the day she found out her baby needed surgery, she decided to open up.

“I was just so frustrated, so sad and overcome with the information the doctor gave me,” Barbie said, recounting her story during the Hunger Free Communities Summit in Washington, D.C., last month. “That day, I decided to answer her questions, and instead of just telling her that I didn’t have any gas in the home, I told her my whole life story.”

That researcher kept in touch with Barbie and eventually connected her with Dr. Mariana Chilton of the Drexel University Public School of Health, who asked Barbie to take photos documenting her life. “She explained to me she had done work with trying to fight hunger and people just weren’t understanding her because she didn’t have the story—but, she knew that I did.”

 

Barbie became the first mother in Witnesses to Hunger, a program in which moms who have experienced hunger and poverty firsthand lead advocacy efforts.

“A person who’s angry, who’s tired, who’s fed up is going to want to tell you why,” Barbie said. “And if you give them the opportunity to express that, not only do they feel that you care about their situation, but they feel a connection to your program and that [by] working together you can probably make a change.”

Barbie’s work with the Witnesses program has taken her to some amazing places: the U.S Capitol, the White House, and the big screen—she is one of three people profiled in A Place at the Table, a documentary from Participant Media that explores hunger in America.

At the Hunger Free Communities Summit, Barbie spoke on a “Voices of Hunger” panel, along with Bread for the World board member and Oregon Food Bank community food programs advocate Sharon Thornberry and Participant Media’s senior director of marketing, Lindsay Guetschow. Barbie talked about her journey to advocacy and serving as a voice for those experiencing hunger. “I know there are people out there who don’t have the courage to speak up, or don’t want to talk about it, so if I have to expose myself to make sure there’s a better tomorrow—not only for my children, but for everyone else,” she said.

Barbie Izquierdo at home. (Laura Elizabeth Pohl/Bread for the World)

 A Place at the Table follows Barbie for two years—when we first meet her she has lost her job during the recession and is struggling to feed her family and skipping meals so that her children would have enough to eat. “In the movie...there’s a scene where both of my children are sitting at the table and I’m in a different room,” Barbie said. “I didn’t want to seclude myself from my children—it was because I never wanted my children to notice the difference between what they were eating, and what I was eating.”

Eventually, we see Barbie qualifying for SNAP and finding a job, which helps her tremendously, but still doesn’t offer a perfect fix. The film also documents her advocacy work with Witnesses, as she fights for a better life for her, her children, and families across the country.

In a country where poverty and hunger can still carry stigma, Barbie said speaking out was difficult at first, but it was just too important to remain silent. “I know there will be people who don’t understand what I’m going through, what it’s like to literally feel pain when you’re hungry and have nowhere to turn, nowhere to go, and nothing to eat,” said Barbie, who is now enrolled in college and pursuing a criminal justice degree.

“But being able to go through all of that and still be able to stand as a person, whether I’m ashamed at times or not, whether I’m embarrassed at times or not, I can still say that I got through it. That’s why I do what I do, why I chose to share my story.”

[This article originally appeared in the April 2013 edition of Bread for the World's e-newsletter.]

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