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Setting a Place at the Table

Setting a Place at the Table

Friday, March 1, 2013

If you’ve ever wondered how hunger and obesity manage to exist side by side, go see A Place at the Table, a powerful new documentary that unwinds the knotty problem of hunger in America. It opens nationwide today (March 1).

The United States is graced with an abundance of natural resources – in fact, the movie opens with a gorgeous montage of those amber waves of grain. In land, water, soil and people, we are truly rich. 

But to look at many of our children, you wouldn’t know it. 

A Place at the Table, from the same studio that made Food Inc., the 2008 expose of industrial agriculture, highlights the tragic reality that one in five children don't know where their next meal is coming from, and half of America’s young are on federal food assistance at some point in their childhood. The film was made by documentarians Lori Silverbush and Kristi Jacobson and Top Chef head judge Tom Colicchio.   

Through the clear but questioning eyes of Barbie, Rosie and Tremonica – just three of the 50 million Americans who have fallen into hunger’s grip – the movie provides an intimate look at the devastating effects that food insecurity has on children’s self-confidence, their ability to learn and their long-term potential – not to mention their health. 

A Place at the Table reaches deepest when it poses the question: If second grader Tremonica were yours, could you stand by passively as she absorbed the subtle, silent messages that being hungry transmits – we don’t believe in you, your potential doesn’t matter, you aren’t important enough to feed? 

For those who are skeptical of emotional appeals, the film provides a fascinating history of America’s shifting priorities for food policy and funding – from food stamps to farm subsidies to school meals to dietary guidelines – and how lawmakers and agribusiness lobbyists have long pitted them against each other. The film deftly takes us through the nation’s brief 1970s fling at solving the hunger problem by government action (it nearly did!) and then shows how a decade later we were patting ourselves on the back for having “made a difference” through private charity. 

But as the film’s passionate hunger advocates spell out, charitable programs alone can’t solve the problem. Willing volunteers and private partnerships of food banks, pantries, soup kitchens and other emergency food providers are an important piece, but they can’t shoulder the entire burden for 50 million Americans – nor should they. Emergency food programs were never meant to be a stable source of calories, and chronic reliance on emergency food has created its own problems – including the paradoxical problem of obesity in the face of hunger.

Even though EWG’s focus is environmental, we have long advocated for robust nutrition support through our farm bill work. And ensuring the neediest among us can put food on the table is a core organizational belief.

A Place at the Table tackles those issues and argues powerfully that until we address poverty and corporations share their immense profits with their workers by offering a living wage, there will always be hardworking families that fall into hunger’s tenacious grasp.

When it came to addressing the federal government’s role, the film asked EWG’s co-founder and president, Ken Cook, to explain the nation’s badly broken food and farm policy. Cook also provides extensive insights in an essay featured in the film’s companion book.

Part of the Solution is to Cut Subsidies to Mega Farms, not Nutrition Programs

But Congress must share the blame, too. A Place at the Table also addresses the role that federal farm subsidy programs have played in America’s broken food and agriculture policy.

In 2011, 26 American farms each received at least $1 million in federal crop insurance subsidies. These massive, highly profitable operations churn out industrial-scale corn and soybeans, the raw materials for an unhealthy food system. Yet year after year, these lavish farm subsidies emerge unscathed by Congressional budget cutters even as farm income sets new records. At the same time, critical hunger programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – which, like crop insurance subsidies, is part of the federal farm bill – get targeted for cuts. 

Even as millions of Americans struggle to feed their kids, nutrition programs are slashed. Lawmakers should stop padding mega farms’ bank accounts with tax dollars and use the savings to maintain robust funding for hunger programs. Indeed, Senate Democrats finally proposed exactly that policy in their proposal for averting the automatic and arbitrary budget cuts of the “sequestration” mechanism that kicks in today as this film opens in theaters.

Reasons to be Optimistic

As the movie ends, A Place at the Table encourages us all to stand against hunger. And it’s a hopeful ending – reminding us that we can solve this problem again, as we did in the 70s – but Congress needs to hear from us. It needs to hear that our children are our top priority. 

The farm bill, the federal measure with the greatest impact on the food we eat, may soon be up for a vote in Congress. The pressure to make cuts will be intense, but the place to start is with farm subsidies, not food stamps. You can send your message to Congress here

Then make plans to see A Place at the Table. It’s opening today in select theaters, on demand and online. If we as a country are to solve this problem once and for all, we should all be talking about it tomorrow.  


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