By Roger Moore, McClatchy Newspapers
February 28, 2013
America's twin ills, the swollen ranks of hungry people 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 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. She's 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 access to 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And there are villains, an outdated farm subsidy program that lobbyists have engineered to serve only giant agri-businesses, which focus on corn, soy and wheat, the products used in the vast array of cheap, unhealthy processed foods. 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.
"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, 1 in 6 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 — underachieving kids who grow into underachieving adults, fresh burdens to the health care 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 — live for a week on what food stamps and food assistance programs provide — objections to offending Big Agra and its lobbyists would turn into solutions.
'A Place at the Table' -- 3 stars
MPAA rating: PG (for thematic elements and brief mild language)
Running time: 1:24
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