The producers of A Place at the Table, a stunningly photographed documentary on hunger in America, are taking a gamble that the film tells such a must-see story that viewers will search it out however they can– on ITunes, by DVDs and on-demand TV—since chances are it’s not showing at your local theater. Nominated for the 2012 Sundance Grand Jury prize, the film reveals how hunger is the flip side of obesity in America and its cost is human potential.
It’s a compelling, disturbing and compassionate film, which explores not only who is hungry, but also why. The surprise in a film about hunger in a country where one out of six Americans go hungry at some point—mostly the hard-working poor–is the humor, love, determination and hope it captures. You won’t easily forget fifth-grade Rosie and her dreams of becoming an A student, or Barbie, the articulate young mother who takes an hour’s ride on two buses each way to buy vegetables for her two children because none are available in the “food desert” where she lives.
The idea for A Place at the Table was sparked seven years ago when New York writer-director Lori Silverbush was mentoring a young girl who kept falling asleep in school and was later found foraging in the trash for food. Silverbush would learn she was one of 17 million kids in America who face what the government calls “food insecurity,” the chance of going to bed on an empty stomach or waking to an empty refrigerator. Soon Silverbush was teaming with award-winning documentary filmmaker Kristi Jacobson and crisscrossing the country to examine the root causes of hunger in a country with an overstuffed national food harvest. Chef Tom Colicchio, judge on Top Chef and Silverbush’s husband, became executive co-producer and starred in the film along with Academy Award winner and longtime activist Jeff Bridges, who founded the End Hunger Network in the 1980s.
Everyone who’s seen the film (or just the trailer) that I’ve talked to asks why. “Why?” “How is this possible?”
Why does the federal government funnel billions of dollars into agricultural subsidies in what Jacobson and Silverbush charge is the overproduction of commodities like corn? Think high-fructose corn syrup. Seventy percent of agricultural subsides go to just 10 percent of growers. These subsidized ingredients allow industrial food to charge prices for processed food beneath their true cost. Viewers ask why processed food dominates food banks. And why so many of the processed tons industrial food donates to food banks are foods with empty calories– candies, chips, snacks, cookies, cakes and sodas. There’s an eloquent scene where Rosie sits on the floor sorting through a large cardboard box filled with the snacks and candies supplied by her food bank.
Fruits, vegetables and whole grains are not subsidized. At one point Marion Nestle, professor of food studies at New York University and author of Food Politics, explains that while fruit and vegetable prices have risen 40 percent since 1980, prices of processed foods have dropped 40 percent. If your stomach is growling with hunger, it turns out empty calories are the cheapest food you can buy. Colicchio says, “There’s got to be a way where healthy food, fruits and vegetables are made accessible (to the poor) and less expensive than they are now.” The film includes Colicchio’s testimony on hunger before Congress.
Critics are comparing the film to An Inconvenient Truth and Food Inc. The problem is so complex, one reaction often can be a sense of impotence. So the Participant Media companion guide to the film is worth reading, packed with additional information from the front ranks of Americans fighting hunger and a source guide to 59 non-governmental organizations where you can help take action.
With today’s fragmented social media and Internet milieu, it’s hard to say if this film has a chance of setting off the kind of outcry that arose when millions of viewers watched the 1968 CBS special Hunger in America. That television special spawned bipartisan congressional legislation that led to the funding of federal programs that all but eradicated hunger by the end of the 1970s. Hidden hunger began to reemerge in the 1980s and today touches 50 million Americans experiencing food insecurity.
As Jeff Bridges writes in his forward to the guide, “We can’t be bystanders. We can’t be okay with this situation. We can’t be missing.”