SALT LAKE CITY — By shining light on the hidden plight of hunger in America, the new documentary “A Place at the Table” is earning widespread critical acclaim.
“A Place at the Table” — which opened March 1 at 35 theaters across the country, and is also available for viewing via on-demand and iTunes — explores the issue of food insecurity, a condition defined as being "uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food to meet the needs of all household members because of insufficient money or other resources for food." (In other words, food insecurity basically amounts to not always knowing where your next meal is going to come from.)
Specifically, the documentary earnestly seeks to understand how a country as prosperous as the United States can have 50 million people (including 17 million children) living their lives amid food insecurity.
Faces of hunger
Directors Lori Silverbush and Kristi Jacobson craft a fluid narrative through the experiences of three people who regularly find themselves mired in circumstances without enough food to feed everyone in their families: Tremonica, a Mississippi second grader; Rosie, a fifth grader in Colorado; and Barbie, a single mother of two young children in Philadelphia.
Throughout the movie, the ebullient Rosie exudes an earnest optimism that defies the long odds she and her family confront every day in trying to acquire adequate amounts of food from stretched-too-thin resources like the local food bank. Barbie's plight provides "A Place at the Table" with its most heartbreaking moment: Three months after starting a full-time job and getting off government assistance, she is sending her kids to bed hungry because she is caught in the no-man's land of making too much money to qualify for food stamps but not enough to actually feed her family three times a day.
However, "A Place at the Table" doesn't limit its scope to those who are afflicted by food insecurity. The film also highlights the herculean work of churches, charities and food banks to ameliorate the effects of hunger in America via volunteerism.
No easy fixes
Participant Media — the company behind the 2008 documentary "Food Inc." that called attention to the food industry's relentless pursuit of cheap production costs regardless of the health consequences — co-financed "A Place at the Table." Silverbush and Jacobson cover some of the same themes as "Food Inc."
For example, "A Place at the Table" points out that federal subsidies lower the cost of processed foods but do no such favors for the price of fresh produce. Not coincidentally, since the obesity epidemic began in 1980 the relative cost of processed foods like potato chips has dropped 40 percent — while during that same time period fruit and vegetable prices have risen approximately 40 percent.
"A Place at the Table" distinguishes itself from other documentaries through its rigorous advocacy about food insecurity being a problem so pervasive in the U.S. that the only tenable solution is a grass-roots movement aimed at sparking greater government involvement.
"Our hope is that the film (can be) a catalyst for people really putting public pressure — real, legitimate pressure — on politicians to do something and get the changes that can lead to ending hunger,” Jacobson told the Deseret News last year, when the documentary debuted during the 2012 Sundance Film Festival under the name “Finding North.”
Pertinent data show the scope of the food insecurity problem in America. There are 40,000 food banks, soup kitchens and pantries in operation — up from 200 such operations in 1980.
Some other provocative statistics the movie cites: 85 percent of U.S. households that are "food insecure" have at least one working adult; the average food stamp benefit is less than $5 per day; the state where food insecurity is the most rampant — Mississippi — is also the place with the highest incidence of childhood obesity.
Following is a sampling of what critics are saying about the film.
Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern: “Now that our sources of information have become so diverse, we are harder to startle, and inured to bad news. I sat down to watch this film out of obligation, not because I expected new insights about a problem that has come to be seen as an intractable constant in American life. I was wrong, though. In addition to the dismaying facts and figures is a fuller sense of what hunger can look like, and feel like, among the millions of Americans classified as ‘food-insecure.’”
San Francisco Chronicle’s Walter Addiego: “‘A Place at the Table’ presents a shameful truth that should leave viewers dismayed and angry: This nation has more than enough food for all its people, yet millions of them are hungry. The film bolsters its case with plenty of facts, charts and expert testimony — evidence typical of this sort of advocacy documentary. But what makes the movie compelling is its focus on a handful of victims, who make the statistics painfully real.”
Time magazine’s Mary Pols: “The best illustration of Jacobson and Silverbush’s case — that something has to be done to both raise the level of awareness of the problem and reverse a trend that has grown at a horrifying rate since the Reagan administration — are the ordinary people they profile who are suffering through the misery of regular hunger.”
"A Place at the Table" is rated PG for thematic elements and brief mild language.
Jamshid Ghazi Askar is a graduate of BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School and member of the Utah State Bar. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 801-236-6051.