WASHINGTON - Tianna Gaines-Turner came face to face Tuesday with Elmo, her Sesame Street hero and fellow hunger fighter. She may never be the same.
Gaines-Turner, 31, of Frankford, is one of the Witnesses to Hunger, part of an advocacy program of women in poverty started at the Drexel University School of Public Health.
On Tuesday, she traveled to the Capital Area Food Bank to be part of the start of a national healthy-foods and antihunger campaign begun by Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit that produces Sesame Street.
That an institution with the clout and credibility of Sesame Workshop is tackling hunger is a huge step, antihunger advocates say. For Gaines-Turner, who has known hunger and hard times, it was a nearly unbelievable moment.
"I grew up with Sesame Street," she said. "When this TV show is talking about hunger, it makes me feel like our voices are finally being heard."
Gaines-Turner, a married mother of three who now works as a researcher for the Witnesses project, beamed and stood close to the red puppet, voiced by puppeteer Kevin Clash. "Elmo, Elmo," she said over and over, like one of the 25 preschool children from the area who were on hand for the event.
Gaines-Turner, whose husband remains unemployed after losing his moving job in the recession, knows firsthand the challenges of feeding a family at the poverty level. She lives in the First Congressional District, the second-hungriest place in America behind the Bronx, according to a recent nationwide poll. It is also one of the 10 poorest districts in the country.
This wasn't Gaines-Turner's first trip to Washington. Two years ago, the Witnesses displayed in the rotunda of a Senate office building photos of the people, places, and things that constitute their tough lives.
But Tuesday felt different. "I was more excited about this than the photos in the rotunda," Gaines-Turner said.
"This feels more powerful than anything we've done," said Mariana Chilton, the anthropology professor and Drexel hunger expert who founded Witnesses and is an adviser to Sesame Workshop. She appeared with Elmo two weeks ago on ABC's Good Morning America.
Gaines-Turner agreed, adding, "Standing and talking about your life to U.S. senators is great. But no senator can get to the kids about hunger like Elmo."
Actually, it's Big Bird who might be taking a larger role in the fight against hunger in America, where 10 million children under 6 are food insecure, meaning they do not have enough food to live active and healthy lives, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The workshop Tuesday announced the release of 400,000 Big Bird booklets to be distributed to social-service agencies, health departments, and community programs.
In the booklet, titled "A Delicious Day," Big Bird says "food pantry" for the first time, according to Sesame Workshop publicists. Another character explains, "A food pantry is a place we go to when we need help getting food."
"It means Sesame Street is helping fight the stigma of hunger," Gaines-Turner said.
Many parents who have hunger in their families don't talk about their lack of food, because they fear censure from others, Gaines-Turner said. She related the story of a friend's child who asked for a second breakfast at school one day. A social worker overheard this, and the family was investigated by the Department of Human Services.
The child wasn't taken from the home, Gaines-Turner said. But the idea that a parent could fall under suspicion of being a bad caretaker just because she didn't have enough food sent a chill through her community, Gaines-Turner added.
"With Sesame Street getting involved in hunger, it changes the whole nature of the conversation," Chilton said. "Let's have Big Bird go to the food pantry. And let's have fewer women being judged because they suffer from hunger."
Gary Knell, president and chief executive officer of Sesame Workshop, said Tuesday that the launch came within a week of Congress' passing the reauthorization of the $4.5 billion Child Nutrition Act, which finances school meals and other programs.
The money from the program - and the message from Sesame Street - is needed more than ever, Knell said. "There are record numbers of people going to food pantries," he said. "A child who is hungry and worried about his next meal is at a serious disadvantage."
Both UnitedHealthcare and the Merck Company Foundation contributed funding to the Sesame Workshop project, called the "Food for Thought" campaign.