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Hunger in America: A Short Review of A Place at the Table

August 6, 2013
A Place at the Table

A Place at the Table

Americans tend to view hunger and malnutrition as a problem that exists elsewhere in the world. Our image of hunger is one of a starving African child with a distended belly. But nearly 50 million Americans—including an estimated 16.2 million children—live in households that lack the means to get adequate nutrition on a regular basis. Some 17.2 million households—including 3.9 million children—live in food insecure households that go without food at least some time every month.

How has it come to be that one in six adults, and one in four children, face food insecurity in the world’s wealthiest country? Why do half of all children in the United States rely on federal food assistance to secure enough to eat?

These are the questions at the heart of the 2012 film “A Place at the Table.” The movie highlights the problem of hunger in the United States, interspersing commentary with key individuals in the contemporary food movement with personal narratives of food insecure individuals. As a result, A Place at the Table offers a powerful portrait of hunger in America and the absurdity of the food system that produces millions of tons of food that goes to waste while simultaneously leaving millions of Americans without enough to eat. It also offers a thoughtful analysis of the real cost of hunger in the United States, moving beyond the cost of food stamps to consider the economic, social, and cultural costs as well.

The strength of the film centers on the personal narratives of its three main subjects, Barbie, a single mother of two children in Philadelphia, Rosie, a Colorado fifth grader who depends on friends and neighbors to secure enough food, and Tremonica, a Mississippi second grader with extensive health problems resulting from insufficient nutrition. But it also includes a sophisticated analysis of the root causes of hunger and the social and political agency necessary to resolve them. Unlike many of the contemporary films outlining an emergent alternative food system, A Place at the Table emphasizes the need for broader political and economic reform as a key component of transforming our food system. As Raj Patel notes in the film, “People aren’t going hungry because of insufficient food, but because of poverty. This makes it a (much more difficult) political question.”

And that’s probably the weakness of the film as well. While it provides a powerful portrait of hunger in America and outlines the key elements of strategies to address it, the film also leaves the viewer feeling somewhat disempowered. I could easily see people walking away from the film feeling unable to make any real difference. But embedded in the film is a more powerful message. Hunger in the United States was all but eliminated by the 1970s—largely as a result of demands for an expanded social safety net that included many of the contemporary food programs that face sweeping cuts today—school breakfast and lunch programs, food stamps/SNAP, WIC, senior nutrition programs, and the like. But in the 1980s, as an anti-government attitude emerged, responsibility for ensuring the poor had sufficient nutrition was gradually transferred to the private sector and to charity. And while many of these programs have done an outstanding job providing food to the poor despite sharp budget cuts and other challenges, they are unable to address the underlying causes of hunger described by Patel.

Still, this is probably one of the best films I’ve seen on the topic, and I highly recommend it. And if you’re in the area, I’ll be part of two panels discussing the film—and hunger in the United States more broadly—next month. There will be a September 15 screening at Humboldt State and a September 26 screening in Eureka. The screenings are being organized by Food for People (the Humboldt County Food Bank) and Locally Delicious.  Feel free to come by and participate. And in the meantime, check out the trailer.

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