A Place at the Table (Magnolia Pictures, PG)

film place-at-table_smThe film does an especially good job in exploring the connection between hunger and obesity.


film place-at-table

Recent years have seen a flurry of documentaries on food and food production in this country. By spotlighting hunger in America, A Place at the Table presents another look at the topic.

While the kind of starvation seen in the developing world is rare here, hungry people, especially kids, are not. As this documentary points out, one in four children in the U.S. do not know where their next meal is coming from or if they will have enough to eat.

“Food insecurity” is when you do not know where your next meal is coming from, you run out of money for food before the end of the month, or you are forced to buy cheap, low-nutrition foods just to stretch a too-tight budget. The latter situation leads to the ironic case of people who are both poorly nourished and overweight. The film also notes that 85 percent of families with food insecurity have a least one working adult, yet not enough income to buy enough healthy food.

Directors Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush offer interviews with experts as well as actor Jeff Bridges, who speaks eloquently on the threat to the nation posed by having so many malnourished kids. There are expert interviews with sociologist Janet Poppendieck, author Raj Patel, and nutrition policy leader Marion Nestle. Food activists featured include Witness to Hunger‘s Mariana Chilton and Top Chef‘s Tom Colicchio.

The film is a technically polished production, with pleasing music by T-Bone Burnett and Civil Wars, a singer-songwriter duo. Its production company, Participant Media, is the same company that presented the hit documentary Food, Inc., and this film builds on that one.

A Place at the Table does an especially good job in exploring the connection between hunger and obesity. Chips and soda, whose ingredients are subsidized, are the cheapest foods, while healthy fruits and vegetables, which are not subsidized, as more costly. As the documentary demonstrates, the reasons behind hunger in America have more to do with public policy and economics than a shortage of food, which is abundant in the United States.

The film is a good introduction, but there is not much new for those who already know something about this troubling situation. Of course, this is not the first documentary to expose hunger in America, as the film itself notes. The landmark CBS Reports documentary “Hunger in America,” broadcast in 1968, acted as a wake-up call to the country that there was hunger in the midst of plenty. The result was a series of government programs that virtually eliminated hunger in the U.S. by the late 1970s.

The situation reversed in the ’80s with the reduction or elimination of many of those programs. Those steps included President Reagan’s widely criticized efforts to have ketchup defined as a vegetable for free school lunches for the poor. Fruits and vegetables continue to get little support from government programs compared than commodity foods like soybeans, corn, and wheat, support that is reinforced by industry lobbyists, as the documentary points out.

The films starts out strong, with a look at government’s role in growing food in this nation. Food stamps and the free school lunch program fall under a huge, diverse agency: the Department of Agriculture. Although it comes up in Congress time and again, more attention and funding is given to large farming operations growing crops like corn, wheat, and soybeans, thanks to lobbying to ensure that support continues, and far less to food programs for the poor, who have no lobbyists. These farm subsidies grew out of an effort to help family farms in the Great Depression, but changes in how food is grown since the 1930s mean these funds now mostly go to big agribusiness corporations. The results are cheap chips and soda and more pricy apples and oranges, forcing those at the lowest income to buy fattening, unhealthy foods just to have something to eat.

Once the documentary outlines this crazy situation, it turns to some individual stories, focusing on three: Barbara, a single mother in inner city Philadelphia struggling to find work and provide for her kids; Rosie, a fifth grader in a rural Colorado who can barely focus at school due to hunger; and Tremonica, a second grader in the rural Mississippi with asthma, obesity, and other health problems that are worsen by poor nutrition.

Personalizing the problem is a smart move, and the stories are moving, even heartbreaking. However, the second half of the documentary eventually loses some energy. It raises several other topics, like how food stamp allotments are not enough to get through a month without hunger or a trip to a food pantry, the struggle of private food pantries to keep up with the demand in the face of rising hunger, and “food deserts” that limit choices and how policy restrictions prevent those caught in this dire spot from climbing the economic ladder to get out of it. But new topics are presented briefly and quickly dropped, and some, like community gardens and healthier school lunch options, are barely mentioned.

Other factors that contribute to hunger in America, like diminishing economic opportunities and upward mobility with a widening income inequality, are not brought up at all. Instead, the film returns to the same personal stories and covers the same ground already explored through them. The individual stories are touching but the documentary needed a bit more of the factual information with which it began to really use those stories most effectively.

A Place at the Table tackles a worthy and important topic, one we should find especially troubling given that we are the only developed nation with this situation. The film is worth seeing for that reason, but one cannot help but wish it had explored the subject with a little more depth. | Cate Marquis

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