Film Review: A Place at the Table

Hunger in America, seen through the eyes of its victims, with an emphasis on children. Sobering documentary addresses a shameful problem.

No one should be hungry in this, the world's richest nation. Yet by some estimates, fifty million Americans don't have enough to eat. That's one out of every six people. Why hunger remains so prevalent is the focus of A Place at the Table, an earnest, well-researched documentary that unfortunately will be too easy for most to overlook.

Co-directors Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush cover a lot of territory: food deserts, junk calories, unfair farm subsidies, the link between hunger and obesity, food insecurity, supplemental assistance programs, income inequality. The film delivers most of its statistics through graphics and talking heads, in this case authors, doctors and activists, along with celebrities like Jeff Bridges and chef Tom Colicchio (Silverbush’s husband).

To back up their statistics, the filmmakers focus on three case studies. Rosie is a fifth-grade student in the rural town of Collbran, Colorado. She and many of her neighbors rely heavily on a food bank and kitchen run by a local church. What were once considered emergency programs have become a part of the community.

In Philadelphia, single mom Barbie Izquierod tries to raise two young children on food stamps. Hunger has already affected her son's physical and mental development. When Izquierod lands a full-time job, she earns too much to qualify for food stamps, and loses her subsidized child care as well.

Mississippi has the highest rate of food insecurity in the country, and also the highest rate of obesity. Tremonica, a second-grader, is overweight and suffers from asthma. During a check-up, she admits to a medical worker that she had no breakfast, but instead ate chips and pop. With no local supermarkets, many parents can't find fruits and vegetables, which are more expensive than junk food anyway.

It's been almost five years since Robert Kenner's documentary Food, Inc. and close to fifty since the landmark CBS documentary "Hunger in America," yet the problems they addressed persist. A Place at the Table does a good job at summarizing the issues at stake. But it is less successful at finding causes or solutions for them.

This may be due in part to the filmmakers' approach to the material. Like An Inconvenient Truth, Jacobson and Silverbush adopt a calm, reasoned tone, as if logic, common sense and a few animated charts could effect change. A Place at the Table seems cautious, as if the filmmakers didn't want to offend viewers. Even the soundtrack of NPR-friendly Americana feels soothing.

Occasionally a glint of anger emerges. During a Congressional hearing, Tom Vilsack, the Secretary of Agriculture, chides a senator who wants to know how to pay for the Food Nutrition Act: "You fund your priorities." Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved, blames hunger on poverty, not a shortage of food. To him the real question should be, "Why are people poor?"

The answer to that may be beyond the scope of A Place at the Table. But surely agribusiness, the advertising industry, and a Congress that legislates for the wealthy deserve more than passing mentions. It's too easy to resist A Place at the Table, too easy to ignore its findings. We've been ignoring them all along.