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A Place at the Table: A Heart-Hitting Documentary About Hunger in America

"My dream is to be an honor roll student. My other dream is to be on Home Makeover: Home Edition. I just wish they would come and rescue us from our house...I want my kids to have a better life than I do: have more food, a bigger house with no mold. Get to do what they want to do, and need to do, and never be hungry." -- Rosie, Fifth Grade, Collbran, Colorado

The movie A Place at the Table opens in Collbran, Colorado, a town of fewer than 1,000 people that lies about an hour from Grand Junction, and it is here that we meet Rosie. Rosie is a bright, friendly fifth grader whose family can't afford enough to eat. They rely on Pastor Bob's soup kitchen to survive. That Rosie doesn't really dream all that big -- enough food so she can concentrate long enough to make honor roll, and a stint on a reality show that includes a trip to Disney (what 11-year-old doesn't dream about that?) -- makes the reality of her hunger all the more heartbreaking.

A Place at the Table introduces us to what hunger and food insecurity mean in America today, and in a historical perspective. We meet the players -- the food insecure, the legislators who legislate their hunger, the non-governmental organizations whose efforts can hardly staunch the tide of need, and anti-hunger experts and activists -- in a 90-minute exploration, and indictment, of what is being done to stop hunger in the United States.

The short answer: not enough.

Directors Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush put faces on the hungry so we can see that hunger is both rural and urban, black and white, young and old. After Rosie we meet Barbie, a young single mother of two in Philadelphia who rejoices when she finds a job after being unemployed for a year, but despairs when that job means her children are more hungry than they were when they were eligible for public assistance. We meet Joel Long, a cattle rancher who leaves his ranch at 3 p.m. to clean schools until late into the night to make ends meet. (That government farming subsidies don't help a guy like Joel is underscored but unspoken.) We meet Tremonica, an obese second grader in the Mississippi Delta whose access to healthy food is limited. These people illustrate two important facts:

1. The hungry in this country are not made up of lazy, shiftless welfare queens but of families who belong to the "working poor," and 2. The public assistance program is broken to the point that people who do successfully get off of it are still hungry or worse, even hungrier than when they were eligible for benefits.

 

The film does an excellent job of giving us entry into the language of the anti-hunger world. "Hunger" is an inadequate and inaccurate term; we all experience hunger. Food insecurity more accurately describes the systemic problem of persistent poverty and lack of access to food that results in hunger. We learn how deserts contribute to the problem when we meet Ree, a cook in Jonestown, Mississippi. She likes fruits and vegetables, but the two or three "mom and pop" shops in her town don't carry them so she has to drive 45 minutes to Clarkesdale or Batesville to get them, which is a $10.68 round-trip in gas before she even hits the aisle of the Batesville Piggly Wiggly.

There is an admirable effort given to explaining why our obesity problem doesn't exist separately, or in spite of, our hunger problem, but right along with it. As author Raj Patel (Stuffed and Starved) says during his interview, "People think there is a yawning gap between [hunger and obesity]; in fact, they're neighbors. They happen at the same time, in the same family, in the same person, because they are both symptoms of having insufficient funds to buy foods you need to stay healthy." Obesity is a form of malnourishment, but we are used to thinking of "malnourished" as a synonym for "hungry" or "starving," which simply is not the case in America.

Chock-full of helpful facts and infographics, A Place at the Table brings us through the issue of hunger in America as seen through the lens of persistent poverty that our current system of welfare, USDA policies (which include everything from farming subsidies to school nutrition policies and then some), legislative inaction and a private, largely faith-based charitable safety net simply cannot manage -- much less solve. Does the film flesh out actionable solutions? In a general way, yes. Everyone who appears on-camera agrees that the current system is broken, and that a systemic overhaul is needed: People who find a job and move off of assistance shouldn't be hungrier than when they were on it; educating people about healthier foods and investing in good nutrition is a long-term investment that goes beyond tax dollars spent on SNAP or WIC benefits. (One in three kids born after 2000 will develop Type 2 diabetes; the estimated cost of hunger/food insecurity to the U.S. economy is $167 billion per year.)

But how can we solve these problems when congressional hearings on hunger and nutrition are sparsely attended? I know many images in the movie are meant to shock -- like empty refrigerators and crying children -- but one of the more powerful shots is of a hearing before Congress in which few of the legislators' chairs are filled. The implied question: "Is anyone really listening?"

There are faces you will recognize in this movie, and others you might not. Tom Colicchio, Top Chef host, and Jeff Bridges, actor and spokesperson for "No Kid Hungry," are certainly among the most recognizable, though policy wonks will probably also be familiar with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Congressman James McGovern (D-MA). If you are a foodie who follows anti-hunger campaigns, you will likely recognize Bill Shore (Share Our Strength/No Kid Hungry), Jan Poppendieck (author, professor, activist) and Marion Nestle (author, professor, activist), among others. As far as anti-hunger films go, A Place at the Table is certainly star-studded.

The New York Times review of this film was somewhat scathing, accusing the filmmakers of avoiding the "bare-knuckle journalism that this shameful topic deserves." That statement might have some merit, but what A Place at the Table does well is to give us an overview of what got us here, and it personalizes an issue that is uncomfortable for everyone. The stigma of hunger is a barrier to seeking help; the discomfort keeps many from learning or doing more about it. The thought of 50 million hungry Americans makes me uncomfortable, but probably not as uncomfortable as persistent hunger and worry about where the next meal is coming from. Is A Place at the Table hard-hitting? Not really. But the film is heart-wrenching, and that might be an easier entry point to action for some.


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