One nation, underfed: 'A Place at the Table' warns that food crisis puts millions of children at risk


Filmmakers Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush, with A Place at the Table, are hoping there’s room at the nation’s table for one more important social movement. With anti-war activism and rights campaigns for women, ethnic minorities, gays and the disabled having achieved traction, the documentary envisions a feed-the-whole-country-adequately movement that will also combat the obesity epidemic and so much ignorance regarding nutritional foods.

The goal is to raise awareness of a vast food-insecurity problem that has been obscured by the shame felt by the hungry and denial within government and by the public, so that the country’s many millions lacking food security will get fed.

Docs typically provide plenty of food for thought, but here the paradox is the lack of good food in the world’s wealthiest country getting to those in need, in spite of our ability, the filmmakers maintain, to feed everyone. Surprising and exasperating, A Place at the Table, which benefits from excellent camera capture and a terrific country and folk-flavored music soundtrack from T-Bone Burnett, will soon find its place across platforms via Magnolia Pictures beginning in March.

To explore their complex subject, the filmmakers pointed their cameras at three food-insecure families battling hunger in North Philadelphia, Mississippi and Colorado. Colorado has the misfortune of being ranked number one in child poverty and Mississippi is the number-two state in childhood obesity.

Speaking about Colorado, where the team shot in the farm town of Collbran, Jacobson notes, “We realized it was in many ways a microcosm of America, a town that illustrates so much of what’s happening in communities all over America.” Philadelphia, of course, is typical of all large urban centers whose inhabitants cover the entire socioeconomic spectrum.

The doc also provides many provocative interviews with a slew of experts, activists, academics and writers who advocate on behalf of the nation’s hungry. These advocates clarify how pervasive and punishing the problem is and bolster the film’s many observations of where faults lie. One obstacle is the inadequacy of the nation’s food distribution system that has created so many “food deserts” where nutritional food is not available.

Other weaknesses can be found in social support programs, government and charity inefficiencies, the indifference of voter-focused politicians, and the powerful lobbies of agribusinesses and other corporate food giants bent on filling shopping carts with their more affordable cookies, chips, canned pastas, instant noodles and the like.

A little trickier, as the doc makes clear, is where solutions to the hunger problem lie. And this is where Participant Media, which funded half the film’s budget and is now building its social-action component, comes in. Known for their involvement in many socially relevant and environmentally concerned films (from An Inconvenient Truth, Food, Inc. and The Cove to the current Lincoln), Participant is tasked with creating awareness among the public and facilitating their active involvement.

Silverbush approached Participant because “they are great at raising awareness. It goes beyond marketing and they’ve created a social-outreach campaign at the heart of which will be a national database.” Details of the campaign aren’t yet unavailable as Participant’s effort is still evolving, but Silverbush assures that the database will be easy to use. “Viewers,” she affirms, “will easily learn that it’s one click, one action and one text that will get them the knowledge of what they can do to help this hunger problem and at whatever level they are willing.”

It’s noteworthy that the two filmmakers are hardly food aliens. With a background in film and TV, Silverbush is married to “Top Chef”/top restaurateur Tom Colicchio, who, as an advocate and activist for the hungry and outspoken in his call for higher food budgets for schools, executive produced and appears in the doc. Silverbush previously directed the 2004 narrative fiction film On the Outs, which premiered at the Toronto and Berlin Film Festivals. She had never tackled a documentary but already knew Jacobson, who had directed a number of docs. One of the highest-profile of these was Toots, about Jacobson’s legendary grandfather Toots Shor, a famous restaurateur in his day when he ran his eponymous celeb watering hole in midtown Manhattan.

Silverbush describes her “Eureka” moment for knowing she had to do the doc. “This came as a result of a little girl I was mentoring in the projects and helped get into a special school. I had gotten involved in this program as a result of my own desire to give back and learning from [On the Outs] that I should act. I also knew kids were going hungry, so I became a big sister to the little girl. But when I heard from her principal that she was foraging in the school’s garbage for food, that was when I knew I had to do something more.”

Approached by Silverbush with the idea, Jacobson immediately jumped on board. Together, their three-year “soup to nuts” research and production journey, as Silverbush calls it, revealed the massive problem of food insecurity that maddeningly wasn’t getting solved.

Another big inspiration for both filmmakers was the acclaimed 1968 CBS special “Hunger in America,” which depicted near-starvation conditions throughout the country. Notes Silverbush, “[The show] was the big influence, the way it impacted public policy. Edward R. Murrow, Fred Friendly and Charles Kuralt were the major figures involved and it was so influential that it led to legislation because Americans—the viewers—responded to it. We discovered it early in the process when we were doing our research and learned that there was no doc like this since 1968.”

Says Silverbush, “Until people saw [the CBS show] they thought that hunger was something that only existed in places like China or Africa.” But the telecast had viewers pressuring their elected representatives to do something, with the result that bipartisan legislation (yes, Virginia, there can be bipartisanship) led to the funding of federal programs that almost ended the hunger problem by the late 1970s. But the slashing of these programs during the Reagan era brought the country to where it is today. Jacobson observes, “It was really inspirational for us to see that [“Hunger in America”] could have such a pronounced effect on public policy.”

Food insecurity is complex and reasons for its existence are many. Reduced to basics, it issues from the problem of poverty which all countries are hard-pressed to solve. There are also aspects of political paralysis and government inefficiencies and the no small matter of politicians’ focus on those constituencies that are more critical to their political survival (they believe that the poor tend not to vote). Another big factor is the powerful food lobbies that impede progressive policy change by twisting government arms. In the meantime, it’s low-cost chips, canned spaghetti, colas, and processed and “fast” foods that dominate menus of the hungry and substitute for the higher-cost, readily inaccessible fresh and nutritional fare they need.

The situation is indeed gnarly, but Silverbush succinctly expresses the problem the doc addresses. “Over 50 million Americans from day to day don’t know how they are going to feed their families. And this in the world’s wealthiest nation with an abundance of food that could feed everyone.”

The film’s first case subject is Barbie, a single mother in North Philadelphia who grew up poor and is now trying to provide for her two kids. She longs for an education that is out of her reach. Her family has barely subsisted on food stamps (the doc maintains allocations are approximately about $3 to $5 a day per person), but the low-paying job she finally landed will boot her from the program. Sadly, Barbie’s son Aidan is a familiar example of a child dealing with health problems as a result of being nutritionally deprived.

In the small farm town of Colltran, Colorado, the filmmakers found fifth-grader Rosie, who has been depending on friends and neighbors to feed her. Her living quarters are cramped and messy and her mom does volunteer work delivering food bags, ironically containing junk food, to the needy. Not government-generated, Rosie’s food comes from Pastor Bob Wilson’s charitable efforts. The point here is that no matter how well-meaning, charities cannot do the proper job that much-needed government initiatives could do. Also, Rosie’s inability to get the right food has impeded her ability to learn.

The doc finds overweight second-grader Tremonica in a poor corner of Mississippi. Her asthma and health issues are exacerbated by the largely empty calories her hardworking mother can afford. But there is a wonderful teacher in her midst working hard to educate kids about nutritious foods. Handing out honeydew melon, she waxes convincingly about the virtues of eating well and gets the students genuinely enthused.

Asked what were the most unexpected things she gleaned from these food-insecure subjects, Silverbush replies, “We learned how common and how enduring the consequences of experiencing hunger are. You can read about it, but it is so much more immediate when you talk with people dealing with hunger or hear from those who went through it about their memories of being hungry. They seem fine now, but like those still dealing with the problem, feel so much humiliation and shame about that situation and stay so quiet about it.”

How did the filmmakers find their subjects? Silverbush recounts, “We got to Philly as a result of learning about [public health expert] Dr. Mariana Chilton, who is there. She is a professor and researcher and great leader and advocate on behalf of the hungry. And she brought us to Barbie.”

Jacobson amplifies, “We knew that with Barbie we had an urban story, but we knew that hunger happens in every county in America, in typical America where people don’t expect it. So doing research, we came across Pastor Bob in Colorado. Through this networking we learned about Wednesday-night community meals for the hungry and on each visit we met more people and found Rosie and her mother.”

Activist Chilton, who has testified in D.C. for policy changes, shares that even brief periods of nutritional deprivation during the first three years of life can permanently affect a child’s brain and have lifelong consequences. As head of activist group Witnesses to Hunger, she and dozens of local mothers were moved to action by their frustration with insufficient governmental attention to the hunger issue.

Besides Chilton, the doc offers a number of other advocates and activists speaking and working on behalf of the hunger problem. These include author and Hunter College sociology professor Janet Poppendieck, author Raj Patel, nutrition policy leader and NYU nutrition expert Marion Nestle, the aforementioned Wilson, Colicchio and actor Jeff Bridges.

Often from different perspectives, all provide interesting takes on the enormity and ramifications of the food-insecurity problem and the possibility for solutions. The Oscar-winning and multi-nominated actor Bridges, who has spent decades raising awareness of hunger and looking for solutions, provides a historical perspective. He believes we’re in denial about the great number who go hungry and that “increasing awareness of the problem will wake people up.” He urges, “It’s about patriotism, really. Stand up for your country. How do you envision your country? Do you envision it a country where one in four of the kids are hungry?"

“Jeff,” notes Silverbush, “has been working on hunger for over 30 years. He contacted us through Participant. He comes to the problem with a real understanding of the systemic underpinnings of the issue.”

Nutrition expert Nestle points out that “this country imports double the number of calories we need and yet we’re not living well.” She is one of several participants who explain the politics of food in this country and its connection to poor nutrition and the poor themselves. Again, not coming across well are the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the food giants and their lobbies, whose roles again suggest that corporate welfare is at the expense of public welfare.

Challenging the charity model, rather than much-needed government action, to wipe out hunger, author/sociologist Poppendieck offers her perspective on hunger charities as a band-aid but no long-term solution to the problem. Responsibility for feeding the hungry, she believes, has been transferred to food banks, pantries and soup kitchens, in what has become “a secondary food system for the poor” who can’t afford the food in stores. Or, more dimly seen, a kind of black market for the food needed by the poor. Once viewed as emergency measures to get people fed, these auxiliary food sources have become the norm, a way of life for almost 50 million people, she says.

Voices heard in the film on behalf of the food-insecure are few from the political front. A brief clip features Michelle Obama as an advocate for fresh, nutritional food, but the filmmakers did tap early on Massachusetts Democratic Congressman James McGovern, a passionate advocate on behalf of the food-insecure and co-chair of the Congressional Hunger Center, for several interviews. Says Jacobson, “The minute we met Jim McGovern, it was so crystal-clear that he truly gives a damn. He was so authentic. We felt really fortunate to have been able to feature him in this film.”

While A Place at the Table flashes its hunger problems neon-light bright, solutions are dimmer. The recent tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, which spawned a “Let’s get everyone safe” rallying call, suggests that “Let’s get everyone fed (and fed well)!” might be a slow-go as well unless Participant can make us all participants to end the crisis.

So far, well-meaning stopgap solutions (food stamps, etc.), innumerable charitable efforts providing food, and activist groups raising their voices have not provided answers. Silverbush believes that “the solution lies in how to get all Americans the food they need and make it more accessible.”

Jacobson adds, “From the beginning, our conversations with Dr. Chilton inspired us to go beyond the charity model and look at political solutions, since the root cause of hunger is poverty.”

Government action emerges as key, but politicians, Silverbush contends, tend to ignore the problem except for McGovern and “he is not alone. There are a handful in Congress, but Jim is the pre-eminent one. Unfortunately, too few are focusing on this [hunger problem] because they don’t believe that hungry people are their constituency or that they vote.”

Asked if the federal government might do more to address the issue, Silverbush replies, “[Government] responds to what people care about, which is why average Americans need to know that their voices [on this issue] are so important, that it’s not just a matter of charity donations of food or money, which are private-sector solutions. Citizen action is what makes the difference, a lesson learned from ‘Hunger in America.’”

Adds Jacobson, “There are no political consequences now for politicians not acting. So Americans must become aware, and there lies the possibility for change. We hope that the film will engage an unaware American audience, which is why Participant has taken the driver’s seat for the social-action campaign to mobilize people. And they will be able to do this easily with the database they’re creating so that people can get engaged locally and nationally with those they have to get to. Meaningful action will be within the reach of everyone.”

Participant, says Silverbush, is “doing the hard work for you.” She reminds that “all you do is text or click on their website and you’ll get the information you need to act simply and precisely to get help to get the problem solved.” Silverbush believes that “you’ll probably just have to put in your zip code to get the initial information you need to take action.”

Also in the way of solutions is tackling inefficiencies, including so many different anti-hunger, anti-poverty and pro-nutrition activist groups working independently throughout the country. Jacobson agrees. “Yes, we want to bring in [all these] groups. So we’re hoping the documentary will be a rallying call to unite them.”

Silverbush cites an August meeting at the White House that brought together people in education and the healthcare communities involved in the hunger problem. And this was in addition to another White House gathering of prominent chefs who raised awareness of the problem. “Knitting together all these groups is a real high priority for us and has been so since day one. And it’s happening.” Adds Jacobson, “We’re not another advocacy group. We want the many groups to work together.”

Rich in information and determined in its mission, A Place at the Table might inspire some utopian or fanciful notions of where solutions might lie in getting adequate food to every table. For instance, in addition to uniting all the like-minded groups acting independently, how about uniting, building and empowering a meaningful countrywide network of the many hundreds (thousands?) of urban and rural local food initiatives that will get local garden and farm growers, markets and their vendors, and van and truck distributors in big and small cities everywhere, aided not just by federal and local government funding but by local restaurateurs (from the many deep-pocketed multi-millionaire food moguls to the merely prosperous and caring), wealthy realtors and concerned charities? Everybody wins and more jobs are created, including those driving the trucks and vans that get the local food to the previously ignored “desert” outposts.

Silverbush responds enthusiastically, “This is happening and the leaders are food professionals. And it’s happening in so many places and we’re asking even small businesses to help out. With policy in place, these are the people who will lead. Yes, community agriculture is part of the solution.”

Maybe it’s time at this point to take off those rose-colored glasses and see things through the reddish, gimlet eyes of the devil’s advocate. Among the devilish questions in this food-insecurity quandary that might emerge are why, in addition to government and corporate accountability, isn’t attention being paid to personal accountability? After all, shouldn’t the many young, unwed, poor, single mothers be held personally accountable for getting into the trouble they’re in? And how about how the many illegals having kids in this country taxing government food programs and other welfare? And what about the many parents who just don’t give a damn about nutrition and/or are easy grabbers of handouts from both government and charities? (Human nature has a significant role here.) And is the country’s food-stamp program really that inadequate?

Silverbush jumps right in. “Let me disagree. Parents do care about nutrition, and poor people have a right to have kids. And the vast majority of people on food stamps are families with at least one working parent. And immigrants are known as hard workers.”
With so many successful civil-rights precedents, why not the right to be adequately fed? Says Silverbush, “We spent the last three years believing this can happen.” And Jacobson declares, “The problem for so long has been invisible to a lot of Americans; once it is made visible, change will be possible.”

Cue the forthcoming Participant Media campaign, which hopes to draw enough participants demanding the changes so powerfully set forth in A Place at the Table. Unlike safety for all, which gun enthusiasts are shooting down, food for all might stand a better chance. After all, even gunslingers and lobbyists can’t turn down a hearty plate of food.