A Conversation about Hunger
Artist Billy McGuinness speaks about his Hunger Project
Interview summarized by Megan Isaacs
Billy McGuinness, currently a graduate student at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, sat down with me the other day to speak about his Hunger Project, a year long work in response to the 2011 nation-wide fast during which thousands went without food in protest of congressional food and health aid budget cuts. A few big time leaders including the then UN Ambassador Tony Hall and renowned food journalist Mark Bittman participated in the fast and publicly advocated for further conversation and action on such urgent issues of food justice.
Billy remembers the day when his wife called and convinced him to participate, as what brought food issues to the forefront of his attention and sparked his future conceptualization of the Hunger Project. “Rather than advocating for a specific policy, what they (the organizers of the fast) were trying to do was reframe the budget debate as a moral debate. To say its not about dollars and cents, it’s about actual human beings. And I found that really compelling as an approach. Rather than to directly steer the conversation, they were indirectly trying to create an overall frame, and to change the nature of the debate, and bring it into a much more human context.”
For his Hunger Project, Billy later committed himself to eating $4.40 worth of food, equivalent to the average food stamp allocation, per day for an entire year. By weighing and calculating the value of his food, he maintained daily, weekly and monthly running averages of his food intake. To adapt to any eating related problems he came across in daily life, for instance when he went out to dinner with friends, he balanced out the days when he ate a lot with those during which he ate very little or nothing at all.
“A typical day would be oatmeal in the morning, though towards the end of the project it became white rice, with butter and white sugar which was cheaper. Lunch might be bread, maybe with butter. Dinner would be mac and cheese which is really cheap. If you go to Aldi, you can throw stuff into it and eat it over a few days, to make it stretch.”
Towards the beginning of the project he also came across the issue of what to do with the food people wanted to give him for free. “There was the basic drive (from the people close to him) to not see someone go hungry. I had to take the food. I couldn’t turn it down. But if I didn’t charge myself for it, then the project would become about how much free food I could get, which was not the project I wanted to do. I wanted to do a project about what it felt like to be hungry.”
Throughout the project Billy also experienced psychological changes and cognitive difficulties. For a little while the sight of people eating became grotesque and people of normal weight suddenly seemed huge. He was distracted by his hunger almost all the time and his wife noticed that he was mentally slipping when he started to lose at board games.
“Even when I was thinking clearly, whatever we might be talking about, whatever issue I might be considering was still like the fifth thing on my mind. The first four things were: I’m hungry, I didn’t get enough to eat earlier, when am I going to eat next and wow my body doesn’t feel good. This is what is going through your head. You’re distracted by your physical being. Being reminded that you have a body, and that eating is a basic function”
Additionally, having a three-year-old son who couldn’t understand why his father wasn’t eating the same food as him proved how drastically food issues can affect relationships. “What commonly fails to be significant to our consciousness is how fundamental to human interaction eating is. We eat together, this what we do, particularly as a family. Mealtime is a time to be together. So even though we were sitting down at the same table, just the fact that I was not eating the same food was an issue. For my son it was particularly troubling. He could not accept or understand why papa was not eating the same food as him.”
Billy spent his first real meal the morning after his last day eating blueberry pancakes with his wife and son. He intends to use his project to further public conversation and direct action about food justice issues. “Using this project as a credential that I can take into conversation with both people in power and also with people who are not in power.”
When I asked him about his experiences eating since he completed the project, he said “Even though it can never be like that first meal, its good to have just slightly more gratitude for the fact that I have food. Each time I eat, its like, oh that’s awesome.”
To learn more about the fast that sparked Billy’s Hunger Project, check out Mark Bittman’s article Why Were Fasting in the NYTimes Opinion Section or Tony Halls blog at HungerFast.org