Hungry for a Solution, by Rita Cannon
In the new documentary A Place At The Table, filmmakers Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush take a long, hard look at the problem of hunger in America – what causes it, who’s affected by it, and what can be done to solve it. But it isn’t just about hunger, at least not in the literal sense. It explores the dovetailing problem of obesity, showing just how inextricably linked the two issues are, and finally gets down to the condition that’s actually at the heart of them both – poverty.
The film profiles a handful of people living in “food deserts,” or areas that lack affordable access to the foods needed to make up a healthy diet. Instead of grocery stores stocked with fresh produce and whole grains, these areas are chock full of fast food restaurants and convenience stores, making unhealthy processed food the cheapest and easiest choice for millions of people who don’t have the money, time, or transportation needed to find better options. Even if you’re lucky enough to live near a real grocery, outdated subsidy programs designed to serve Big Agriculture have made many healthy foods too expensive for people on welfare or making minimum wage to afford on a regular basis. The effects are real and far-reaching – from lowered academic performance in kids, to high rates of diabetes and heart disease in adults.
We’ve heard a lot of this information before, in documentaries like Fast Food Nation and Food, Inc. What A Place At The Table offers that’s new is a specific historical context for hunger and the government policies that, for a good stretch in the 1970s, had virtually eliminated it. Spurred by the muckraking 1968 documentary Hunger In America, President Nixon declared a “war on hunger” that was largely successful. It wasn’t until 1981, when the newly elected President Reagan slashed funding for social programs, that the problem came roaring back. This background information – which, I’m a little embarrassed to say, was total news to me, a person born in the late eighties – makes the film that much more affecting. The filmmakers firmly believe that the problem of hunger is fixable, if only the government could get its act together and do something about it instead of relying on food shelves and other charities to do the job.
The one flaw in this effective doc is its lack of any counterargument to its thesis. I’m obviously not expecting anyone to come onscreen and argue that hunger is no big deal, but there must be people who don’t agree with the filmmakers’ assertion that bringing back the policy of yesteryear is the best way to solve the problem. If there weren’t, wouldn’t it have been done already? Including one or two of these voices would have made for a clearer picture of the situation. As it stands, A Place At The Table shines a light on a serious problem that many people in our country seem intent on ignoring. If a documentary on hunger had such a profound impact in 1968, it stands to reason that this one could do the same.