One in four American children does not get enough to eat. That startling statistic is one of many that filmmakers Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush explore in their investigation as to why the United States, the most prosperous country in the world, cannot or will not ensure that all Americans get “A Place at the Table.”
“A Place…” begins with images of the majestic landscape of America from its thriving cities to its rich, bountiful farmlands and rugged mountains. Then, it gets right to the meat, so to speak, of a problem as seen through the eyes of three people from different parts of the country that have one thing in common – coping with hunger.
Barbie is the young, single mother of two in Philadelphia who struggles, daily, to keep her kids fed. Rosie is a second grader living in Colorado who has problems concentrating at school because of hunger and relies on others to feed her. Mississippi grade-schooler Tremonica’s asthma is aggravated by a diet noticeably lacking in nutrition. These three give a face to the problem of hunger in the US and they are joined by an eclectic array of advocates and advisors to hit home the fact that, daily, millions of Americans go hungry.
As expected, “A Place at the Table” is awash with statistics about America’s hunger crisis. These stats, though, are not just number crunching but a window into a world that, once upon a time in the 1930s, helped subsidize farmers to make a living income. Now, 70% of all government farm subsidies go to fewer than 10% of the operating farms in the US. It is near guaranteed that this 10% does NOT consist of small, struggling farms but corporations.
Documentarians Jacobson and Silverbush delve into the history of hunger in America when President Richard Nixon first declared the War on Hunger and it was eradicated by the end of the 1970s. That changed with Ronal Reagan who was responsible, with his domestic policy, for not just re-introducing the problem of hunger in the US but for making it the epidemic it has become in this country.
The question in my mind as all of the evidence of the problem is laid out, is what can be done? The measures taken thus far – food stamps, soup kitchens, food banks and charitable programs – simply are not enough to eliminate hunger. As one of the interviewees, actor Jeff Bridges, puts it (and I paraphrase): We have to wake the people up and demand that government programs be focused on ending hunger in America forever. I give it a B.
Even with all the talk of the growing divide in the U.S. between the have and the have-nots, it will probably surprise many to learn that 1 in 4 children do not have enough food to eat while vast amounts are wasted and the Government funds corporate agriculture's junk food over family farms' produce. Directors Lori Silverbush & Kristi Jacobson ("Toots") travel the country to introduce some of these kids who are looking for "A Place at the Table."
Documentaries aimed at getting people to take action seem to be flooding the market with the result that many are becoming more and more niche oriented. Climate change got a spotlight from "An Inconvenient Truth" which then spawned Leonardo DiCaprio's "The Eleventh Hour," "Cool It" and "Chasing Ice." The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has been studied in "The Axe in the Attic," Spike Lee's "When the Levees Broke" "The Big Fix" and "Trouble the Water." And these are just some examples of those theatrically released. While some of the films which follow offer enough different angles or inventive filmmaking to make them worthy in their own right, others suffer from repetition of material offered before in earlier, better films.
That is often the case with "A Place at the Table," whose filmmakers focus on hunger in the United States while covering much of the same ground as earlier works like "Food, Inc." But Jacobson and Silverbush invite interest with their regionalized looks at the circumstances of some very engaging individuals. We first meet Rosie, a young girl living in Colorado in a ramshackle home housing three generations. Her mom works at The Cattleman's Grill, and yet the family is forced to stretch their budget with starchy food items and whatever the local Church can distribute. The directors use the latter to segue into a discourse on how Government programs ensured its people were fed in the 1970's and how subsequent cutbacks have shifted the responsibility to charities. Rosie's teacher works for the food bank and the church's pastor is followed on a run as he talks about how dramatically demand has increased.
In Philadelphia, single mother Barbie Izquierdo dreams of college while struggling to keep herself and her two small children housed and fed. As a young girl, her diet consisted of Oodles of Noodles and Chef Boyardee and she swore she'd never feed this to her own kids, but that's exactly what she has to do when food stamps are denied because her earnings are $2 over the weekly cap. Barbie's story leads to that of Dr. Mariana Chilton, a Witness to Hunger activist.
The filmmakers have structured their film well, connecting larger movements to individuals. They also feature the phenomenon of 'food deserts,' areas where the means of traveling to well stocked supermarkets can be prohibitive, forcing folk to rely on poorly stocked mom and pop shops with meager fresh food supplies.
Their use of celebrity supporters actor Jeff Bridges and 'Top Chef's' Tom Colicchio (Silverbush's husband) is being used to market the film, but doesn't add much of anything, content wise. (Bridges does get in a good line, noting that our Defense Program isn't funded by charity.) Original music by T-Bone Burnett and The Civil Wars is a much more satisfying selling point. Experts like Paj Patel, an economist and author, provide more substance by breaking the subject down to the underlying root problem - poverty.
"A Place at the Table" offers some new angles to look at America's nutrition troubles, but also repeats information presented before. It's a well done piece of work, but is there a general audience for it?
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