“A place at the Table”
Directed by Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush
By Malcolm Maclachlan
“No, people aren’t dying of hunger the way they are in Africa,” says author Raj Patel near the beginning of “A Place at the Table,” a documentary about hunger in America. “But that’s about the best you can say.”
How can the fattest nation that has ever lived have a hunger problem? It’s pretty straightforward. Cheap food is unhealthy food, full of fat, sugar, chemicals and empty calories. Millions of Americans try to stretch their dollars by buying calorie-rich, nutrient-poor processed—and still come up short at the end of each month.
The reason that processed “food” costs less is that the federal government has spent a well over a quarter trillion dollars on farm subsidies since 1995, with the vast majority of the money going to commodity crops and to large agribusiness interests (This includes $84 billion on corn alone—see King Corn, 2007). Since 1980, the cost of fruits and vegetables has gone up 40 percent, while the cost of processed food has gone down 40 percent. Over the same period, the number of food banks in the U.S. has jumped from 200 to 40,000.
In other words, half a century of misguided policy has created that most modern of contradictions: malnutrition with a chubby face.
This bleak perspective splits the middle between the two narratives we usually hear about food in this country: 1. The class-tinted self-flagellation that comes with the obesity epidemic or 2. The class and gender-tinged questions of body image that tend to focus on anorexia and eating disorders that, while they are at historic highs and devastate many lives, are statistically insignificant compared to the impact of obesity.
But “A Place at the Table” is still mainly about class in America. It focuses on the 50 million Americans who suffer from “food insecurity,” not knowing where their next meal is going to come from. This amounts to one-sixth of the nation’s population. This number includes one quarter of American children.
It’s the flip side of Food, Inc., the 2008 documentary from the same film company (Participant Media). Food, Inc. invited viewers to step out of the factory farming/fast food paradigm. Michael Pollan’s famous advice to “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants” has been downgraded to “Eat whatever you want, as long as you cook it yourself.” But even that is out of reach to many Americans.
“Table” challenges the notion that people eat unhealthy food because they like it or don’t know any better, and instead argues they consciously do it because they know that’s all they can afford. Take Barbie, a young Latina single mother of two in North Philadelphia. She says she once pledged to never feed her children Chef Boyardee because she had to eat so much of it growing up. Then we see her doing just that, purely out of necessity.
Barbie also illustrates the contradiction of aid in America and the line that people “just need to get a job.” When she does, she loses her food stamps and, in terms of feeding her children, ends up worse off than before.
Meanwhile, her young son is showing signs of serious developmental delays after suffering from hunger during key periods of early childhood. In rural Colorado, we meet Rosie, a 5th grade girl who can’t concentrate in school due to not having enough to eat. Her mom works—for $60 a week in a diner. As Jeff Bridges, actor and founder of the End Hunger Network, puts it, “If another nation were doing this to our kids, we’d be a war.”
The film also makes a stop in Washington, D.C., where several members of Congress have recently pledged to try to eat for a week on $31.50 in food stamps—the average amount most beneficiaries receive, according to many estimates. We also learn that the agribusiness industry spent $124.7 million on lobbying in 2011, second only to the oil industry.
Incidentally, Congress is debating the latest Farm Bill right now. On Wednesday, House Republicans added amendments that would have cut $2 billion a year from the Food Stamps program and impose an expensive drug testing program on applicants. The bill was voted down on Thursday, largely by Democrats who thought it cut too much from Food Stamps and Republicans who didn’t think it cut enough.
Ed’s Note: Malcolm Maclachlan, a former Capitol Weekly staff member, is a regular contributor. He currently serves as public information coordinator at the Sacramento Public Library.
Free documentary screening: “A Place at the Table”
Sacramento Public Library
Directed by Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush
Winner: Grand Jury Prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
Following the film there will be a panel discussion with local experts from Soil Born Farms and two local charities, Sacramento Food Bank and California Emergency Foodlink. You can also bring donations for our summer food drive.