Among the avalanche of stats about hunger in the documentary A Place at the Table, one stood out to me as particularly egregious: One out of two kids will end up on government assistance (i.e. food stamps) at some point before they are an adult. That’s American kids, folks. Consider that for a moment, then realize that it could be worse, and for many of these kids the “government cheese” is all that stands between them and starvation.
A Place at the Table introduces us to some of these kids and their parents, good people struggling to get by. People like Barbia Izquierdo, an unemployed mother of two who talks early in the film about wanting get an education, avoid the drug abuse that plagues her Philadelphia neighborhood, and spare her little ones the struggle she went through as a kid. Barbie’s on food stamps, but they only add up to $3 per day per person — not enough to purchase anything other than the most processed of crap food.
Despite living in one of America’s largest cities, Barbie’s home is in what the film calls a “food desert,” an area in which fresh fruits and vegetables are simply not available. (Shockingly, 75 percent of all food deserts are in urban areas.) As such, she has to make a 45-minute trek — including multiple bus rides and some walking — to get to a fully stocked supermarket. Once there, she can’t afford nutritious food and has to settle for canned pasta and mystery meats, which she then has to schlep back to a place where the sounds of gunfire lull her to sleep at night.
Conservatives have names for people like Barbie: Lazy, moocher, drain on society. She fits neatly into Romney’s 47 percent. And it’s this political degradation of humanity that allows us as a nation to turn a blind eye to problems that should be easily fixable. There’s a relatively small group of powerful people highly vested in propping up their business interests while 50 million of their fellow citizens fall through the cracks, and A Place at the Table makes the case that we will never solve problems of hunger and poor nutrition until we deal with the structural inequality of our society.
It’s no big mystery how we got here: Agribusiness invests millions a year in lobbyists to reap billions in subsidies that reinforce our food paradigm. Of all the money spent on farm subsidies, one percent goes to growing fruits and veggies, 99 percent goes to growing wheat, corn, soybeans and the other basic ingredients of our stew of junk food. Is it any wonder that potato chips are more affordable than apples, and soda is somehow cheaper than juice?
A Place at the Table takes on these issues and more, outlining for the viewer the problem and some solutions to what has become a nationwide epidemic of malnutrition and hunger. The film features interviews with Jeff Bridges and music by T. Bone Burnett and The Civil Wars, and uses the famous names and faces to try and draw attention to the problem.
As a film, there is nothing particularly special about A Place at the Table. It’s your average documentary, crammed with talking heads speaking (often passionately) about one of society’s many ills. It’s also somewhat overbearing in the presentation of statistics and numbers, to the point that the viewer becomes numb to the problem. But there is real power in the story of Barbie and the others whose lives are chronicled in the film. They’re hungry for an answer, and it’s up to the rest of us to provide one.