Movie Review: A Place at the Table

You watch a documentary like A Place At the Table and it makes you wonder about all the people who still regard large swaths of the population as takers. The thinking is that these people aren't able to support themselves and their families because they don't want to. They'd rather live off the largesse of the American government, because those federal and state spigots are so generous.

Except, as this film explains, even that bit of help -- whether it's school lunches, food banks, food stamps or other nutrition-related initiatives -- isn't enough to address the serious problem with hunger in the U.S. And, as it shows, they want to help themselves - but the continued shrinking of the social safety net, thanks to crazed deficit hawks, prevents it.

The figures cited by filmmakers Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush in A Place At the Table (opening nationally and on VOD Friday 3/1/13) are shocking, with literally 50 million Americans suffering food insecurity -- not enough to eat on any given day and no guarantee that there will be food tomorrow, either.

Jacobson and Silverbush look at hunger and its effects on a girl named Rosie in a small town in Colorado. Both parents work, but there's no money for fresh food of any kind and barely enough for the kind of empty calories and processed foods that fill without necessarily nourishing. They find similar cases all over the country -- families of the working poor, with two working parents and still not enough money to buy nutritious food -- or else no place nearby to find it.

They also examine the ripple effects that this kind of hunger creates, from serious childhood development issues to school performance to day-to-day health and ability to resist disease and infection. And, as they show, it doesn't cost a lot to make sure everyone has not just food but healthy food. That, however, would require a shift in priorities by the government that agribusiness is not going to allow to happen.

As one advocate for the hungry points out, the government spends billions on subsidies for farmers who produce commodities: corn, wheat, soy, sugar -- the components of a national spike in diabetes and obesity. But the government does nothing to make the production of fruits and vegetables affordable enough that fresh produce would be as plentiful as the numerous snack foods derived from corn and corn syrup.

And when the government does address hunger -- whether through food stamps or other aid for the working-poor and unemployed -- the benefits are so slim that recipients can't afford to buy healthy food, further exacerbating a national health crisis in nutrition and obesity.

This all seems like no-brainer stuff, until the filmmakers follow one hunger advocacy group to Washington, and see a committee meeting in the House -- and listen to speeches in the Senate -- from the same legislators who have given massive subsidies to corn growers. But they wring their hands over raising the amount the government will pay toward a nutritious school lunch program on a per-pupil basis. They're haggling over pennies for a program to benefit children, one that costs a tiny fraction of what is spent on farm subsidies. Their solution is to cut the money from food-stamp funding instead.

A Place At the Table, with talking heads ranging from Jeff Bridges to Tom Colicchio, all of them articulate and impassioned, is a film that should make you furious. It raises serious issues about our commitment to helping the least fortunate of our citizens, instead of practicing social Darwinism that verges on the cannibalistic.

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