Film: A Place at the Table

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A Place at the Table | Directors Kristi Jacobson & Lori Silverbush | Score: 6.3

If you’re feeling up to it, you could pretty effectively encapsulate the neglect this country heaps on its children via a punishing double-feature of societal discord: First, view the 2010 documentary on the failing public school system Finding Superman; then follow it up with this documentary about hunger in the U.S. from directors Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush. By the end, you might feel thoroughly wrung out, but that won’t hold a candle to the kinds of suffering and heartache felt by the families on the wrong end of our geo-political spectrum.

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The doc travels across the States, finding small, intimate stories to highlight the misery felt by more than 49 million Americans who live in a constant state of what’s known as “food insecure” — literally not knowing from where your next meal will be coming. There’s the single mother of two in Philadelphia, who after searching for work for more than a year finds gainful employment (with a food stamps office, ironically enough), only to find that her new salary just passes the meridian for her children to receive free meals at their preschool; the young girl in Colorado, whose dreams of a future are curtailed by her constant hunger pains, which distract her from her studies; a pastor whose simple food charity has grown from a small sporadic service to an absolute necessity for the town’s many needy families.

There are no lack of examples of this kind of suffering, and a depressingly large number of statistics that speak to the culprit. Giant agribusiness, which has almost entirely replaced the small local farms, has found it increasingly profitable to harvest only the largest of commodity crops (rice, corn, soy, wheat and cotton) and soak up 84% of the government subsidies, while basic fruit and vegetables get less than a single percentage point. The result is an outrageous increase in the cost of fresh food, coupled with a 40% decrease in the cost of processed, far less healthy, possibilities.

In the early ’70s, CBS News aired a special report documenting the problem of hunger in the world’s richest country and the resulting public outcry caused then President Nixon and the Democrat-lead congress to enact several far-reaching bills to help eradicate the issue. Surprisingly successful, hunger had almost been wiped out by the close of the decade, but once Ronald Reagan was elected in ’80, he began the practice of slashing taxes for the super-wealthy (part of the utterly failed “trickle-down economics” policies favored by the president), and balancing the budgetary loss by cutting social services, a galling tradition that is still very much at work in the present day.

The film isn’t all doom and gloom, of course, and offers at least a few possibilities for hope, but unlike the education system, which is incredibly complex and intricate, the solutions are right at our fingertips; it’s just that our government hasn’t seen fit to make it a priority. President Obama’s far reaching “Healthy Hunger Free Kid” act did eventually get passed, but only after getting its funding cut by more than half, with a majority of the funding coming out of — you guessed it — the food stamp program.

As activist Jeff Bridges says in the course of the film “If another country were doing this to our kids, we’d be at war.” You can forgive them if this country’s famished kids and needy families are too weakened and exhausted to take up arms.

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piersPiers Marchant is a film critic and writer based in Philly.

Find more confounding amusements and diversions at his blog, Sweet Smell of Success, or read his further 142-character rants and ravings at @kafkaesque83.

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