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A Place At The Table

Why is it that if you take advantage of a tax break and you’re a corporation you’re a smart businessman, but if you take advantage of something that you need to not be hungry, you’re a moocher?! –Jon Stewart

Today is St. Patrick’s Day. I honestly have no idea what this really means or how it’s celebrated anywhere else in the world. I only know that here in America, at the very moment I type this, millions of people are celebrating in the same way that we celebrate every major holiday: By gorging on food and liquor. I won’t lie, I helped myself to a hearty meal of corned beef and cabbage on my way to the theater tonight.

So here’s A Place at the Table, a documentary that serves some guilt to swallow along with those green Jell-O shots.

The whole film is built around the concept of “food insecurity,” a phrase used to describe those people and children who are unsure about where their next meal will come from, or if it will come at all. It isn’t just hunger, it’s chronic hunger. And apparently, it affects 50 million Americans today.

But wait, you may be asking, isn’t there an obesity epidemic going on right now? How can we be obese and starving at the same time? Well, it turns out that one is actually symptomatic of the other. It’s much easier and cheaper to buy processed and sugary foods than organic fruits and vegetables, you see. Therefore, in households and communities where chronic hunger is a problem, kids may only be able to eat a bag of Cheetos and a soda in place of an actual meal when they get home from school. So of course they’re going to develop obesity and type 2 diabetes down the line.

What’s even worse is when infants are chronically malnourished, which eventually leads to mental illness and immune deficiency. The film even goes so far as to connect malnutrition with our failing education system, arguing that kids aren’t able to focus on their schoolwork when crippled with hunger.

So what’s the cause of all this? Well, the film looks at the issue from multiple angles, but the big one concerns farm subsidies. The logic goes that nutritious foods are more expensive because out of all the billions that our government spends on farm subsidies, only one percent of that money goes toward growing fruits and vegetables. The vast majority instead goes to wheat, corn, sugar, soybeans, and other ingredients that are vital for the production of — all together now — processed foods. Products that so happen to be the output of a massive industry that spends massive fortunes in government lobbying.

So basically, we’re getting fucked by corporate influence over Congress. Isn’t that always the way?

Of course, there’s plenty of blame for the executive branch as well. The film posits that chronic hunger in America was all but eradicated in the ’70s, when the Nixon administration poured a ton of federal funding into food stamps, school meals, etc. Then Ronald Reagan came into office, shaping the modern conservative philosophy that A) poor people are slackers who don’t deserve government funding, B) welfare money would be better spent on military budgets and tax breaks, and C) charities will take care of the hungry anyway.

Flash forward to thirty years later, and we rank dead last among first-world countries in terms of food insecurity.

That certainly isn’t for lack of effort from our charities and food banks, by the way. We’ve got 40,000 food banks working around the clock, providing food to families that don’t have enough money to feed themselves, but too much money to qualify for a pittance from the government. Even worse, the food banks are forced to spend a great deal of effort and resources toward supplying “food deserts.” That phrase refers to certain places — mostly smaller towns and communities — that are far enough out of the way that trucking companies can’t or won’t spend the money for stocking groceries there. So families and organizations have to spend time and money driving out several miles and back to feed an entire village.

So what’s being done about this in Washington? Well, mostly a bunch of rhetoric in speeches. Aside from that, Congress recently allocated an additional $4.5 billion toward school lunches. That might sound impressive, except that it boosts the budget for a single school lunch from roughly $3.00 to about $3.04. And here’s the kicker: That boost was paid for by taking funds from (I swear I’m not making this up) food stamps. Mission Fucking Accomplished.

Oh, and by the way: How much did Uncle Sam pay for the bankers’ bailout and the Bush tax cuts? Was it more or less than $4.5 billion? Yeah, that’s what I thought.

What makes the whole thing even more infuriating is that our government leaders are too shortsighted to see that the cost of inaction is far greater than the cost of action. By refusing to pay for healthier school lunches and food stamps now, we foot the bill five times over for medical costs later. Trillions of dollars are put toward defense spending, but it’s all for naught if our young men and women are too obese for military service. We can argue about education reform all day, but all the talk about teachers’ unions and mandatory testing won’t be worth a damn if the students are too malnourished to actually learn anything. We’re talking about the most basic human need (second only to oxygen) here, it’s as simple as that.

Anyway, it wouldn’t be a documentary if we didn’t meet some individuals to put a human face on this crisis. In this particular film, we meet a single mother who has to choose between staying on government welfare (and being unable to feed her kids) and supplementing her income with a second job (thereby making herself too wealthy for government services while remaining unable to feed her kids). We also meet the citizens of a small Colorado town — one of the aforementioned food deserts — and bear witness to the all the Herculean efforts it takes to keep the town fed. One of those citizens is a young girl who’s so chronically undernourished that she actually sees her teachers and classmates as people-shaped piles of food, like she’s in a goddamned cartoon.

There’s also a state representative who joined a few of his colleagues in an attempt to live on nothing but food stamps. They lasted a week. We meet a cadre of concerned mothers who attempted to lobby Congress on the issue of food insecurity. That was just prior to the aforementioned $4.5 billion absurdity. Then we have such nutrition specialists as Raj Patel (author of “Stuffed and Starved”), who contributed the movie’s best line: To paraphrase, “America only does the right thing when all other options have been exhausted.”

Then we have the celebrity appearances. I knew about the celebrity guests going into this film, and I was honestly quite worried. Let’s face it, very little can discredit a cause like some limousine liberal who wants to make a trite and insincere show of support for vanity’s sake. Fortunately, this movie featured two celebrities who are actually very knowledgeable and passionate about the issue.

One of them is Tom Colicchio, best known as the head judge and co-host of “Top Chef.” Obviously, the man knows a thing or two about food and nutrition. Moreover, Colicchio tells us that his mother used to work as a lunch lady, so he was amply familiar about the deficiencies of school lunch from a young age. And Colicchio isn’t content just to talk about the subject. The movie shows us clips from an episode of “Top Chef” in which the contestants were challenged to make a nutritional meal for kids on a school’s budget. None of them could do it. And that was the point.

The second big celebrity guest is none other than Jeff Bridges. You’d be forgiven for balking at this: What could The Dude possibly know about food shortage in America? Well, it turns out that this has been a pet cause of his for some time now. He helped found the End Hunger Now network back in 1984, and he joined the Share Our Strength organization in 2010 as spokesman for the No Kid Hungry Campaign. There’s also Hidden in America, a TV film he exec-produced back in 1996 for the specific purpose of highlighting food shortage in America.

I was honestly quite surprised to find that the film never made a single passing reference toward Bridges’ acting career, much less the great films and iconic roles he’s been part of over the years. He’s in this film strictly as an advocate for ending American hunger, and he’s a very well-spoken advocate at that. I was sincerely impressed. Additionally, I’ll bet it was Bridges’ involvement that brought T-Bone Burnett and his soulful musical stylings to the film. So kudos for that.

Everything that’s in this film is good and rage-inducing. However, I learned from Bully that documentaries shouldn’t be judged on what they put in, but what they left out.

For example, the film mentions that Mississippi has the highest rates of food insecurity out of any state in the nation. This begs the question of what makes Mississippi so much different and worse, though that question is never addressed in any way. The film also introduces the concept of “food deserts,” but never offers a solution to that particular problem. We’re told on multiple occasions that there’s more than enough food in this country to go around, but there’s a disappointing lack of evidence and statistics to support that claim. Also, though the film goes into great detail about improving nutrition in school lunches, it doesn’t do enough to address the argument that kids can’t be forced into eating whatever healthy food they don’t want to eat.

(Side note: To be fair, a lot of these issues were addressed by directors Lori Silverbush and Kristi Jacobson when they sat down with Jon Stewart on a recent episode of “The Daily Show.” That’s actually where I first heard about this movie. But I digress.)

A Place at the Table is a staggering look at a problem that’s been swept under the rug for far too long. If you need or want another reason to be angry at our elected officials, then go see this movie. If you’re angry enough that you want to see this movie and it isn’t screening near you, then go to iTunes or Amazon Instant Video and watch it there. If you can’t spare the time to see the movie, but you’re still angry with the situation, then go to the movie’s website to learn how you can get involved.

And if you’re not angry at all, then why not?

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