Developing strategies to end hunger

This Weekend: A Place at the Table

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A Place at the Table, a new eye-opening documentary on hunger in America is set to launch nationwide this weekend. It will expose the reality of hunger in America through the lives of three people. Barbie, a young Philadelphia mother, fights to make ends meet and break the cycle of poverty. Rosie, an imaginative fifth-grader, tries to distract her mind from hunger pangs as she learns and grows in rural Colorado. And Tremonica, a sunny Mississippi second-grader, struggles with health problems caused by the poor nutritional value of the food that her mother can afford. Their stories reveal the depth of the hunger crisis in America and the factors that drive it.

You can find a theater near you to view the film here, or watch it instantly via itunes here. But before you see it, hear from the directors, Lori Silverbush and Kristi Jacobson on how working on this film forever changed their view of hunger in America and its solutions:

Over the three years it took to make A Place at the Table, we met people who forever changed our understanding of what hunger in the United States looks like, why it exists, and how it can be fixed. Chief among them was Dr. Mariana Chilton, a Philadelphia physician and anti-hunger activist. Dr. Chilton handed out digital cameras to forty mothers in North Philadelphia and asked them to document their struggle to feed their families, then sent their pictures – stark and stunning – out into the world. This simple act had profound implications, giving the women a political identity as the Witnesses to Hunger, and a voice that has since become part of the national dialogue about hunger.

It was through Dr. Chilton that we met Barbie Izquierdo, a spirited single mother who relied on food stamps (SNAP) while searching for work. Her efforts, as well as her activism with the Witnesses to Hunger, led to a job at the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger. What should have been a happy ending, however, was anything but—Barbie’s new income was too high to qualify her for SNAP, but too low to provide adequate healthy food for her own children.

Mariana Chilton
Mariana Chilton at the 2012 Hunger Report Launch

We had expected to find hunger in the inner cities, but were surprised to also find it in idyllic rural towns like Collbran, Colorado, a proud ranching community nestled in a valley of the Rocky Mountains. In the summer of 2010, virtually everyone in town was feeling the impact of food insecurity in some way. The local pastor explained that lately even two-income families were relying on his church’s weekly communal meal and after-school  feeding program for kids. Even the town’s sole police officer frequented the church’s food pantry to make it through the month. A local teacher, Leslie Nichols, described how the shame of being a hungry kid still haunted her today; she channeled those difficult feelings into action by distributing bags of food to the families of her hungry students.

In Jonestown, Mississippi, a sultry Delta town of 2,000, we encountered a food desert; despite industrial agriculture all around them, the town’s residents were forced to travel great distances to buy fresh food –a true obstacle for those without access to transportation or sufficient income for gas. Fast food and packaged processed food, the building blocks of an unhealthy diet, were readily available. We couldn’t help but ask ourselves: why does a cheeseburger—whose multiple ingredients must be processed, cooked, packaged, marketed, and advertised—cost less than a fresh peach? The answer is so tightly wrapped up in government farm policy, political horse-trading in Congress, commercial interests, and misguided social planning that unraveling it is more than the media is generally willing to take on, and certainly more than the average voter is able to comprehend without help.

Americans are told we can’t afford to make school meals nutritious or expand the nutrition safety net enough so that everyone can eat.  We’re told that charities need to fill the gap. Millions of ordinary Americans are being encouraged to donate cans of food and volunteer their time at food pantries, believing that these efforts will make a significant difference, but a food bank employee quietly confided to us that canned food drives and employee-volunteer days were more valuable for public relations than ending hunger.  

Charity is important, but it’s not solving the underlying problem. In fact, it could be making it worse by allowing us to avoid asking the really hard question: Why, in a nation that has the means to feed everyone well and plentifully, are 49 million people not getting enough to eat?

Over the next two years we dared to imagine a system in which food banks become obsolete. If federal agricultural subsidies went toward fruits and vegetables rather than overproduced commodities, would that peach be cheaper than the cheeseburger? Could the substantial expertise of food bankers and community food activists be marshaled to help set up local and regional systems of delivery to food deserts? Could we explore community-based growing solutions through public funding rather than relying on the quixotic arm of charity? If we were to modernize the safety net and base it on the reality of need, would parents like Barbie be able to focus their energies on parenting, studying, and their family’s upward mobility rather than the draining and demoralizing daily quest for food?

Why can’t school meals be highly nutritious and free for all students, like textbooks, thereby erasing the stigma for the millions of kids who need government-subsidized meals? Maybe then young people like Rosie, a struggling 10 year old we met in Collbran, Colorado, would have the energy they need to learn. And why not let teachers like Leslie Nichols teach children about healthy food choices and preparation? If we can teach algebra, why not food smarts?

All these changes would cost money up front, but it seems clear that in the long term we’d recoup our investment in the form of decreased healthcare costs and greater productivity. Doesn’t society prosper when people are healthier and have the money to make real, healthful food choices, thus increasing demand for those items? With increased demand comes greater production, leading to lower prices. Lower prices for fresh food would benefit the very people who need it most.

The true cost of hunger is measured not in dollars but in human suffering and loss of human potential. We made A Place at the Table because we truly believe that when Americans are made aware of injustice in their own backyard, they will demand change from their leaders. When Americans equate ending hunger with patriotism, we know we will solve the problem of hunger in America once and for all.

Lori Silverbush and Kristi Jacobson are co-directors of the documentary film A Place at the Table, about the shocking paradox of hunger in the wealthiest nation on earth, through the stories of three Americans who face food insecurity daily.

This article first appeared in the 2013 Hunger Report: Within Reach Global Development Goals. Read more from the report here.


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