You see enough documentaries these days, and it’s impossible not to wonder: What’s with the texting? No matter how dire the subject, we’re now always told during the end credits that we can do our part to help said cause by texting a few digits to an onscreen address—which is cool, because before seeing The Cove, I always wondered how I could assist in exposing Japanese whaling atrocities by using my smartphone.
I kid because I love. It’s an innovation of Participant Media, an admirable organization that attempts to get audiences involved in social issues. They first caught nationwide attention with An Inconvenient Truth, and more than maybe any other production company working right now, Participant has developed an instantly identifiable house style. We’re basically inundated with horrifying statistics, expert talking heads, celebrity guest stars and animated flow-charts interrupted by a couple of sad personal dramas. Just as the audience is about to collapse from despair, the music abruptly changes to an inspirational anthem, and the film wraps up with information as to how we can still make a difference, even if just by texting.
Although A Place at the Table, directed by Lori Silverbush and Kristi Jacobson, sometimes feels slightly hidebound by the Participant formula, it’s essential viewing nonetheless. Attacking the rather unsexy and woefully under-reported topic of hunger in America, this is an informative and often infuriating picture.
But wait: hunger in America? Aren’t we the most morbidly obese country on the planet? How can a nation of full waddling slobs complain about going hungry? Well, that’s where A Place at the Table becomes fascination. See, the correct term now is “food insecurity,” and even if that unfortunately sounds like the title of a diet column in a women’s magazine, it really just means you don’t know where your next meal is coming from. Shockingly, 49 million Americans currently suffer from food insecurity, and that number includes one in four children.
Well, then how did we get so damn fat? Silverbush and Jacobson lay it out clearly: Shit food is cheap. Eating healthy is too damn expensive. Our agricultural subsidies are absurdly skewed in favor of the corn syrup mafia, and over the last few years, the prices of fresh produce and vegetables jumped 40 percent while the cost of processed junk food dropped by—you guessed it—40 percent. It’s no surprise then that Mississippi has both highest rate of food insecurity and the highest rate of childhood obesity.
According to the movie, back in the ‘70s, we had this thing pretty much licked. Thanks to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) program, better known as food stamps, there wasn’t much of a problem anymore. But with the Reagan revolution came the wholesale gutting of social programs, and feeding the hungry was outsourced to churches and local charity organizations.
A Place at the Table visits with a great many humanitarian groups doing their best to feed as many folks as they can and privately lamenting that they can’t offer healthier meals. Celebrity chef Tom Colicchio shows up to run us through his famous Top Chef challenge, in which contestants were asked to come up with meals on the paltry budgets given to school lunch programs, with predictably unsettling results.
Most upsetting is the tale of Philly’s own Barbie Izquierdo, an unemployed single mom we watch struggling to feed her kids. You think you’re in for a happy ending when Barbie finally lands a job, but then A Place at the Table shows how the working poor sometimes have even less to budget with, and it’s Hot Pockets for dinner again. As with most Participant productions, I'm not sure I buy the final reel's sudden rays of light at the end of the tunnel. But this is a fine film that demands to be seen.