America's twin ills, the swollen ranks of hungry people in the country and the national “obesity epidemic” are explained, in blunt and poignant terms, in A Place at the Table, a new documentary about “food politics” and the forces that let hunger in America make a comeback.
Filmmakers Lori Silverbush and Kristi Jacobson show us the faces of hunger — the working poor of Collbran, Colo.; Jonestown, Miss.; and Philadelphia — 50 million Americans, by the latest estimates.
They talk to plenty of experts — researchers and authors who have written on the subject, a congressman from Massachusetts for whom this is a favorite issue. There are celebrity witnesses — actor Jeff Bridges has been involved in this issue since the 1980s, Top Chef Tom Colicchio has become an anti-hunger activist.
And they visit the hungry themselves — 11-year-old Rosie, in rural Colorado, a bright kid living with three generations of her family, all of them working, in a tiny house — struggling in school because there isn't enough to eat, because school lunch programs are decades behind inflation in their budgeting.
Her teacher is sympathetic, because she too endured this sort of childhood.
“It messes with you,” the teacher says. She volunteers in a local food bank run by the righteous Pastor Bob Wilson of Plateau Valley Assembly of God, a man whose ever-expanding feed-the-hungry ministry cannot keep up with the needs of his tiny community.
We learn about “food deserts,” those corners of rural and urban America with no accessible supermarket that carries fresh fruits and vegetables. Millions live in those. Millions more pay the price for having to eat cheaply. Their calories come from the most affordable, most available and least healthy foods out there, leading to obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
And there are villains, an outdated farm subsidy program that lobbyists have engineered to serve only giant agri-businesses, which in turn focus on corn, soy and wheat, the products used in the vast array of cheap, unhealthy processed foods that they push. And then members of Congress, in Big Agra's thrall, show up to hearings about the subject and whine about the (tiny) cost of school and senior citizen breakfast and lunch programs.
Colicchio's Top Chef show had its contestants try to prepare meals based on the money allocated, per pupil, for such lunch programs. They couldn't.
But most damning of all is the date of the clear connection between when these twin evils began. A Place at the Table revisits the 1968 TV documentary Hunger in America that prompted President Richard Nixon and the Democratic Congress of the day to declare a “War on Hunger.” By 1980, hunger was all but vanquished in “the richest country on Earth.”
Then Ronald Reagan was elected on a platform of “the hungry deserve it,” one expert says. Thirty years later, one in six Americans can be classified as hungry.
“We're in denial about this,” says Bridges, who helped found the End Hunger Network in the ‘80s. Expert after expert points to the real costs of this short-sighted approach to hunger — under-achieving kids who grow into under-achieving adults, fresh burdens to the healthcare system because of poor diet.
It's a beautifully shot and reasonably balanced film, but one that struggles to find a hopeful note to end on. Perhaps if every member of Congress did what House member Jim McGovern attempted — living for a week on what food stamps and food assistance programs provide — objections to offending Big Ag and its lobbyists would turn into solutions.
With: Jeff Bridges, Mariana Chilton, Tom Colicchio, Ken Cook, Barbie Izquierdo.
Directors: Kristi Jacobson, Lori Silverbush.
Producers: Julie Goldman, Ryan Harrington, Kristi Jacobson.
A Magnolia Pictures release. Running time: 84 minutes. Adult themes. In Miami-Dade only: O Cinema Wynwood.