In Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush’s documentary A Place at the Table, Democratic U.S. Rep. James McGovern of Massachusetts says that he and some of his colleagues once tried to live on what they called the “food-stamp diet,” eating no more than what they could buy with the assistance provided to the average financially struggling American. The exercise lasted only a week. Why? Because the average food-stamp benefit is merely $3 a day. Apparently the politicians didn’t like going hungry.
Though McGovern is one of the strongest supporters of efforts to end hunger in this country, the U.S. government as a whole appears to be Enemy No. 1. The problem isn’t that there’s not enough food to go around, as the experts who appear in the film say. It’s that Uncle Sam subsidizes the wrong things—the bulk of the money that goes to farmers is for corn and other crops that tend to get processed; fruit and vegetables receive less than 1 percent of dedicated funds—which makes healthy foods expensive and junk cheap. The situation is worsened by an unlivable minimum wage and welfare programs, such as food stamps, that constrain applicants with unrealistic and sometimes absurdly strict income limits. (One Philadelphia mother of two, Barbie, claims she was at one point denied aid because she earned $2 more than the ceiling.)
From beginning to end, this unrelenting documentary is heartbreaking, eye-opening, and infuriating. You’ll probably recoil at the garbage that students are served in schools, high in fat and sodium. You’ll hear the personal stories of those affected by hunger. (A fifth-grader, Rosie, has trouble concentrating in school, saying, “I struggle a lot, and most of the time it’s because my stomach’s really hurting.”) You’ll learn about “food insecurity”—which means not knowing where your next meal is coming from—as well as astonishing, nearly hard-to-believe statistics, such as that one out of two children will be on food assistance at some point, and one out of three born in the year 2000 will develop Type 2 diabetes. (The doc looks at Mississippi, which has both the highest rate of food insecurity and the highest rate of obesity.) Jeff Bridges, who founded the End Hunger Network, calls the situation our country’s put itself in “just insane,” citing the amount of money thrown at bank bailouts versus what goes toward social services programs. (The difference is, indeed, insane.)
A Place at the Table is, ultimately, documentary as PSA, highlighting how volunteering and charitable organizations can help; it offers a number to text at the end of the film if you’d like to get involved. You’ll likely find its transparent agenda forgivable, and may even be moved to do something yourself.