place at the table documentary

Dir. Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush
(2013, PG, 84 minutes)

A Place at the Table was not made explicitly as a follow-up to Food Inc., but it functions well as one. Food Inc., from 2009, explored how the food industry has transformed over the last 50 years, with big businesses promoting profits over safety and sustainability, and getting government subsidies that keep soft drinks more affordable than fruits and vegetables. While that film approached America’s food problem at an institutional level, A Place at the Table is more personal. By profiling a few individuals from diverse communities, directors Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush empathetically illustrate how 50 million Americans are food insecure, even though the country produces more than enough food to feed every citizen. So what’s the problem?

It’s money, of course. The hunger crisis is really an economic crisis. Most of those who are food insecure are in working households but don’t earn enough to make ends meet; the aforementioned government subsidies make unhealthy food cheaper and businesses distribute those products much more widely, thus driving up health care costs for those who consume it; and food stamps don’t cover much, if you qualify at all.

The myth of the meritocracy paints America as a country of a few “job-creators” who “built that” and an underclass that “takes.” What this film does especially well is humanize some of those takers, who would pull themselves up by their bootstraps if only our nation’s economic policies weren’t standing on their feet. Consider an infuriating scene in which struggling women, representing the advocacy group Witnesses to Hunger, address their concerns to a Congressional committee, and most of the seats are empty. Later, when extra money is authorized for school lunch programs, it’s paid for by cuts to food stamps, which is like robbing Peter to pay Paul.

It’s more difficult to write off a large number of Americans when you’re shown the practical realities of their lives, from Barbie, a single mother in Philadelphia who finds a steady but low-paying job, loses her food stamps, and thus struggles to provide for her family as much as she did before; or a Colorado community where a young girl, Rosie, struggles to concentrate at school because she hasn’t eaten and depends on charitable deliveries from her teacher. Some believe that if we provide too much aid the poor will lose their incentive to succeed, but if you’re spending all your energy trying to scrape together enough for three meals a day – or two, or hopefully at least one – that doesn’t leave much time to become productive members of society.