After tackling tough topics in "An Inconvenient Truth," "Food Inc." and "Lincoln," Participant Media takes on American hunger in its latest release. The documentary, called "A Place at the Table," tracks the roots of hunger and its possible solutions. But it also shines a light on nasty speed bumps in the way.
Filmmakers Lori Silverbush and Kristi Jacobson follow a handful of American families who rely on public assistance. As we watch their daily struggle to keep food on the table and some of the current solutions to the problem, it becomes clear that faces of hunger may be different from those we think we know, and that current solutions come with problems of their own.
Jacobson recently stopped by Chicago to promote the film and chat about what it taught her. The following is an edited transcript of that talk.
Q: What got you interested in doing this film?
A: My co-director Lori was mentoring a young girl and learned not just that she was hungry but how it was affecting her and here it was right here in our backyard. … As I explored it, I was really surprised at how prevalent hunger is here in America … but the point at which I realized I needed to make this film was when I began to understand the devastating lifelong consequences it has on individuals.
Q: You faced a daunting visual challenge in presenting the face of hunger (or too little access to nutritious foods) because it is often accompanied by obesity, which to many is just the opposite. How did you plan for that and address it?
A: Going in we knew, as everyone does, that we have an obesity problem. We imagined that there was probably a link, but it quickly became evident how intrinsically linked the two are, even though the average person doesn't think of it that way. We are absolutely conditioned to look at an obese person or community and blame them for their choices and think they couldn't possibly be hungry. But what we have discovered was that in many places across this country, food insecurity and obesity went hand in hand. The No.1 food-insecure state was Mississippi, and it was No. 1 in obesity.
We wanted to address that but in a really positive way, because most of the stories about obesity in that region aren't particularly positive. So we worked really hard to spend a lot of time in the Delta and elsewhere to figure out how we were going to do this.
Even though there are a lot of programs out there like Lets Move, we thought it was important to show the access people really have and the decisions they have to make that aren't really choices, because there are large systems at play that influence them to eat the way they eat.
As (global food policy author) Raj Patel says more eloquently than I, you can have hunger and obesity in the same house, family and person. It's someone who is just not getting the nutrition that they need to thrive. And that's effectively what we are doing to our nation (with the current programs.)
Q: You really brought that point home in the scene in which the teacher is making food pantry deliveries to her student, and they are full of candy, cakes, cookies and chips. Was that a surprise?
A: We discovered it in the making of the film. With just about any documentary, you go in with one idea, and what you find isn't always what you thought, and it's like "wow." But you have an obligation to show it. Once we saw the (junk food pantry donations) again and again, we thought we have to handle this delicately because there is no question that what the food banks and charitable organizations are doing is an essential … but at the same time this problem is too big for the private sector alone to handle. There are these other political forces at play that make these highly processed, nutrient-deficient foods cheaper and more available, not only at the stores but at the food banks also.
Q: Even though this is a very policy-heavy topic, you chose to tell it through people. Why?
A: When we met people like Barbie (a single mother of two in Philadelphia) in the beginning of this process, we realized the power of telling true, human stories. It helped people be more open and think of things differently. But it was also a challenge in the editing because we didn't want to just give a portrait of hungry Americans, because we do that once a year at Christmas. We wanted to understand why.
Q: I thought it was really interesting that you showed how unexpectedly difficult it was after Barbie got her job and no longer qualified for public aid. We saw that her kids were now entirely dropped from school food programs, leaving them hungrier and the pressure on her greater.
A: Yeah, that was another example of real life entering the film we thought we were making. When she got a job (and no longer qualified for aid), we thought this is how the story is going to end, and there was this twist. But talking to more people, it turns out this is called the "cliff effect," and it's very common (after someone gets a job and loses all aid), which is why we believe reforming these programs would go a long way. They need to look at how people are using this today rather than 40 years ago, and ask if a revamp (of the rules) would be more effective fiscally as a nation but also in the bellies and hearts and minds of people.
Q. What was the biggest surprise as you made the movie?
A. Learning how many people have been affected by hunger, and I don't even mean the people who were in the film. It was talking to friends and colleagues who opened up to us and told us about the time in their life when they were on public assistance. One saw the trailer and said, "There isn't a day in my life when I think it's not all going to fall apart." And so it was very surprising to learn that it's such an invisible but prevalent problem and one that is hurting people in ways you can't see.