A Place at the Table may not be a great documentary, but it does something all great documentaries do: it makes you take a step back and think of bigger issues outside your personal sphere and wonder if there's anything you can do to change the status quo. Here, co-directors Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush make an airtight case that the status quo is a many-headed, armor-protected hydra. At its most basic, there's a hunger problem in this country and there's also an obesity problem. These evils, ones that are seemingly separate, actually go hand-in-hand. Overcoming these challenges is near-impossible since those most affected by hunger are least likely to donate to political campaigns and have no power to change the behavior of the enormous agribusinesses that enjoy corporate welfare and get paid not to grow certain crops. It's all quite infuriating and yet A Place at the Table is modest in its presentation of the facts and isn't afraid to leave some room for hope. Appearances by longtime anti-hunger activist Jeff Bridges and "Top Chef" Tom Colicchio (who is Lori Silverbush's husband) should result in extra attention for this nicely assembled effort.
Statistics, fancy graphics and celerity endorsements aside, the film works best when concentrating on a well-chosen trio of women coping with what is called "food insecurity", a relatively new term that signifies any person who does not know where their next meal is coming from. To the 50 million-strong list of food insecure Americans, Jacobson and Silverbush add Rosie, a Colorado pre-teen who shares a ramshackle home with her mother and grandmother, Barbie, a single mother of two living in Philadelphia, and 7-year old Tremonica, a veritable poster child for the obese and hungry. Each of them, along with millions of other Americans, lives on food stamps, unemployment or meager paychecks. Their thin finances, however, aren't the real problem. The issue is corporate and governmental indifference, mismanagement and profit-hoarding. Farm subsidies have driven down the cost of producing carbohydrate-infested junk food and raised the cost of producing healthy fruits and vegetables. So when the financially-strapped visit their local grocery store, all they can afford is processed crap that makes them fat. Compounding the problem is that agribusinesses have no incentive to ship fruits and vegetables to small, rural markets and corner stores, leaving many families to either buy junk food or travel miles away to superstores like WalMart to buy healthier foods they can't afford anyway.
Many dismiss the plight of the less fortunate because they assume they ‘re lazy or stupid or whatever generalization they concoct to avoid putting a human face to the problem. These are the people who would benefit most from A Place at the Table. To their credit, Jacobson and Silverbush have not created an angry, partisan polemic (although some will note that the poverty-counter graphic climbs much faster during Republican presidential administrations). More than most recent documentaries, the soft-peddling of its anger allows us to put away our preconceived notions when faced with those who are desperately and intractably unhealthy. It's heartbreaking to see 7-year old Tremonica sheepishly admit to an aid worker that all she eats are empty calories, which might someday lead to a diabetes diagnosis to go along with the asthma she already has.
A Place at the Table, like the recent, similar doc Food, Inc., is not above carting out experts and statistics. Some of the stats are startling. Some of them make you wonder what kind of country we're running here. Every year, $20 billion in farm subsidies are gifted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to, wait for it, enormous farms that hardly need the handout and will just produce junk food anyway. Seven-five percent of food deserts (areas with little or no access to healthy foods) are in urban neighborhood, which may run counter to the preconceived notions of many. Most depressing is that American schools only spend about 90 cents per day, per child on student lunches. Kids wind up eating food that's only marginally better than the nutritionally-barren foodstuffs they gobble up at home. Even in one school that recently increased the amount of money it spends on lunches, seeing the lunch lady throw a meager two leaves of lettuce onto a student's tray seems almost sadder than watching them devour their previous school meal of hamburgers and chips.
Things aren't hopeless in Jacobson and Silverbush's reserved, effective telling. There is the occasional politician sincerely working to raise awareness on Capitol Hill. One of them invites a group of food insecure women to speak in Washington DC. And the most invigorated scene in the entire film sees a classroom of elementary school kids trying their first honeydew melon and absolutely loving it. Such sights may not move the needle of empathy at any American agribusiness, but it will dispel misconceptions of how hard poor Americans work to escape their plight and provide for their children. At least it's a start.
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Mariana Chilton, Tom Colicchio, Raj Patel
Director: Kristi Jacobson, Lori Silverbush
Producer: Kristi Jacobson, Lori Silverbush, Julie Goldman, Ryan Harrington
Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements and brief mild language.
Running time: 84 min.
Release date: March 1, 2013