Review: American Food Insecurity Receives ‘A Place at the Table’

Filmmakers explore how obesity and food insecurity are intertwined

Published on June 4, 2013by Lauren Weisenfluh

Seventeen million children are food insecure in America. Twelve and a half million American children are obese. If you’ve ever wondered how obesity and food insecurity can exist within one nation (let alone one household), filmmakers Kristi Jacobsen and Lori Silverbush’s “A Place at the Table” will erase any uncertainty. Exploring the complex drivers behind the obesity and poverty in America through compelling facts and poignant stories, the film makes an urgent case for the resolution of US food insecurity.

Obesity and poverty sustain each other in a symbiotic cycle, the filmmakers argue: kids are hungry, and when they get food, it’s often unhealthy.

To illustrate their point, the film follows several people, including Rosie, a fifth grader from Collburn, Colorado. Her family primarily lives off charitable food donations from the local church. Because of hunger, she struggles to keep up in class: “Her tummy hurts.” It hurts so much that her classmates and teacher morph into fruits and vegetables as she tries to concentrate in class.

“Sometimes we run out of food so we try to figure out something, probably ask friends for food,” Rosie tells us. “We get really hungry and our tummies just growl and sometimes I feel like I’m going to barf cause [sic] it feels bad. I don’t really know what to do.”

Rosie’s mother makes $120 every week working at a local diner. Her father works two jobs: a cowboy by day, a janitor by night. Even so, Rosie’s family sustains themselves off a primarily carbohydrate diet.

Barbie Izquierdo, a single mother of two from Philadelphia, works full time, yet she struggles to feed her children. Further complicating Barbie’s situation: She lives in one of America’s “food deserts” — low-income communities with little access to fresh food. She must travel long distances to buy healthy and fresh food for her family. Food providers find it economically unviable to deliver fresh food to small mom-and-pop groceries. Instead, they sell their fresh produce to large stores.

“We have stores in Jonestown,” says Ree Harris, a cook for Uptown Brown’s in Mississippi. “We have about three grocery stores, but it’s hard in getting some of the things, like when you want fruit, is no store sell fruit [sic]. Maybe one store will have a few bananas.”

Instead of federal assistance programs, the hungry largely rely on charitable food banks to receive their next meal.

Once viewed as an emergency measure, charitable food banks have become a “secondary food system for the poor” — the norm for 50 million Americans.  Consequently, the number of charitable food organizations in America has skyrocketed from 200 in 40,000 since the 1980s. Even Colbourn’s sole police officer regularly visits the church’s free meals, citing shame as a civil servant who needs assistance to eat.

In stark contrast, hunger was virtually eliminated in America during the 1970s with federal assistance problems, say filmmakers Jacobsen and Silverbush. These programs were largely cut when American government priorities shifted. “The 80s created the myth that (A) hungry people deserved it, and (B) well, we could really fill in the gaps with the charities,” says Joel Berg, Executive Director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger.

Leslie Nichols, Rosie’s fifth grade teacher and a victim of childhood hunger herself, introduced Rosie’s family to the food donation program at their local church. She drops off donated food to families in need every week. When asked whether she feels guilty about the type of food she is delivering — mostly carbohydrates — she acknowledges the food’s low nutritional value.

But certainly something is better than nothing, even if it’s unhealthy.

Carbohydrates provide the bulk of these unhealthy calories. They are cheap and provide the most calories for the cost—the most bang-for-your-buck.

Fresh fruit and vegetables are not cheap. While undoubtedly providing higher nutritional value, fresh fruit and vegetables provide the least amount of calories for the cost. This leaves struggling families, like Rosie’s, with little choice but to live off of inexpensive carbohydrates.

“A lot of people think there is a yawning gap between hunger on the one hand and obesity on the other,” argues author and activist, Raj Patel. “In fact, they’re neighbors… they’re both signs of having insufficient funds to be able to command food that you need to stay healthy.”

The filmmakers argue that the crux of the problem is government subsidies. Corn is heavily subsidized by the US government, a subsidy that was put in place to pull the US out of Great Depression.

Vegetables and fruits are not subsidized, making them more expensive.

“[Vegetable and fruit farmers] don’t have the type of political clout that the big commodity producers of corn and soybeans and wheat that gets processed do,” says Marion Nestle, author of “Food Politics.” We are spending $20 billion a year on agricultural subsidies for the wrong foods.”

The long-term health problems caused by hunger are expensive: $167 million every year on health issues related to lack of access to nutritious food. “We’re wasting billions of dollars by not spending less to fix hunger,” says Dr. Larry Brown, former chairman of the Physician Task Force on Hunger in America.

At the end of the day, food insecurity sells our children short. “It’s about patriotism really,” Jeff Bridges, an actor and spokesman for “No Kid Hungry” argues. “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?”

“A Place at the Table” is now playing in theaters, onDemand, and is available for rent on iTunes.

Edited by Karestan Koenen. Additional research by Josh Brooks.