'A Place at the Table' tackles the new face of hunger in America

'A Place at the Table' tackles the new face of hunger in America
Courtesy photo

There's a set by comedian David Cross in which, during one of his many tirades (either on rednecks, 'Mericuh, or George Bush), he settles on the pathetic state of American nutrition — skyrocketing obesity, taco shells made from Doritos chips, three-liter bottles of soda. "You see these people that are just morbidly obese, not even well nourished — they're malnourished and they weigh 380 pounds!"

It's a paradox of modern America, where unhealthy, high-calorie foods are now the cheapest.

America: where you'd be hungry and obese.

In this bizarre new world, hunger and obesity are neighbors, both signs someone lacks resources to stay healthy. In the new documentary A Place at the Table, filmmakers Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush explore food insecurity in a way not seen since CBS in 1968 ran Hunger in America, a troubling documentary that sparked major policy reforms.

A Place at the Table argues that Reagan's anti-government reforms in the 1980s dismantled much of the progress in dealing with America's hunger crisis. Amid a recession, food stamps were demonized, and public assistance programs gutted in exchange for tax cuts and increased military spending.

Fast forward to 2013, and each day some 50 million Americans experience food insecurity, meaning they either face outright hunger or forego healthy food for cheap, nutrition-deprived junk.

In A Place at the Table, we follow an obese second grader from Mississippi whose mother can't afford fruits and vegetables, and a fifth grader in rural Colorado who tells us she can't concentrate in school because she's so hungry and doesn't know how she'll get her next meal. We see a single mother from Philadelphia who cringes as she feeds her kids Ramen and Chef Boyardee because she has to hop two buses, traveling over an hour in each direction, just to get to the nearest fully-stocked grocery. A Place at the Table mimics Participant Media's previous big-picture docs, like An Inconvenient Truth, Food, Inc., or Countdown to Zero, giving viewers a digestible overview of a complex social problem. Among the litany of disturbing charts and graphs, we learn how the relative cost of fruits and vegetables has shot up 40 percent since the 1980s, while processed foods are 40 percent cheaper than three decades ago.

Nearly an hour into the film, Marion Nestle, a New York University nutrition professor, delivers the documentary's blunt message: our collective nutrition crisis is a direct result of terrible farm policy. Federal subsidies, the film argues, benefit only big agribusinesse, which in turn churns out cheap, processed-food staples, all while small produce farmers get little support. Consider that Big Ag is second only to the oil and gas industry in money spent lobbying Congress. And that measures in Congress to raise the nutritional bar for school lunch programs, like 2010's Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act, get paid for by scooping money out of the federal food stamps program — reforming programs to tackle hunger by raiding programs to tackle hunger.

Our region's no stranger to food insecurity — only Mississippi tops Texas by number of citizens going hungry. Census and USDA data indicate 17 percent of Bexar County residents face hunger, while a Feeding America survey released last summer shows more than a quarter of Bexar County children live in food-insecure households.

"We are spending $20 billion a year on agricultural subsidies for the wrong foods," NYU's Nestle says in the film. "And $20 billion would go a very long way to promoting a healthy, educated population, starting with kids."

A Place at the Table

★★★ (out of 5 stars)

Dir. Kristi Jacobson, Lori Silverbush; feat. Jeff Bridges, Tom Colicchio, Ken Cook (PG)
(Opens March 15 at the Bijou)

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