March 7, 2013

Do you like this?

In 1968, CBS released a documentary hosted by Charles Kuralt titled “Hunger in America.” Television was much less fractured then, which allowed a large number of viewers to witness the realities of hunger in the lives of 10 million Americans. The documentary was so powerful that it shocked the nation into action, and for a time hunger was powerfully addressed. People called their representatives and demanded action. Legislation was passed. By the end of the 1970s, our hunger problem was drastically reduced. It was a testament to engaged democracy.  

Unfortunately, during the 1980s and the Reagan administration, the work done to combat hunger in the richest nation on Earth was nearly undone for the sake of tax cuts and defense spending. A new narrative was created, one in which the government was not the answer, despite evidence to the contrary. Instead, the problem of hunger was handed off to private charities and faith-based initiatives. The focus shifted and the hungry were shamed.  

It is estimated now that 50 million Americans are “food insecure,” meaning that they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. One in two children will rely on public assistance for a meal at some point in their lives. “A Place at the Table” is a new documentary that hopes to be “Hunger in America” for a new generation.  

The film travels to three distinctly American locations: a small town in Colorado, a “food desert” in Mississippi and low-income housing in Philadelphia. The problems facing these families are myriad. One mother works as a waitress, bringing home $120 every two weeks. She is forced to move back in with her parents, seven people in a single-family home, keeping them from qualifying for food stamps because the household makes too much to qualify. Her daughter, Rosie, a fifth-grader, lives in a closet with her sister and can’t focus at school because she’s hungry. A mother in Mississippi can’t afford to buy fruits and vegetables for her child, choosing quantity over quality so that her dollar can stretch farther. As a result, her daughter, Tremonica, a second-grader, is overweight and asthmatic. In Philly, Barbie is out of work, relying entirely on food stamps and government assistance to feed her children. When she does find work, she loses her assistance, making her ability to provide for family even harder. These are the faces of 50 million Americans.  

The film talks to a variety of experts, policy makers, physicians, pastors and teachers. It argues that hunger is inherently solvable in our country. We don’t have a scarcity problem—the U.S. has more than enough food for everyone. Instead, it’s a problem of access, of cost, of improperly applied subsidies. Billions of dollars a year are spent to subsidize agribusinesses that produce corn and soy, which in turn has made processed foods cheaper to produce. A significant number of Americans increasingly rely on charities and faith-based services for their monthly food supply because it’s simply too expensive to buy at the store. Pockets of American towns exist in areas without supermarkets, depending on small markets or convenience stores for food, meaning that fresh foods are scarce. The qualifications for SNAP benefits are so narrow that most struggling families don’t qualify or qualify for such a small amount it makes little difference to their overall situation.  

The film’s greatest success comes from addressing and dismissing the cultural perception of the “welfare queen.” Americans tend to value individualism and self-reliance above all. While this is a positive trait at times, it can also lead to a callous view of those who struggle, placing blame rather than offering help.

Lacking the power to feed your family is humiliating and stressful; very few Americans are on food stamps by choice. Rather than arguing about the role of government or worrying that someone somewhere might be undeservedly benefitting from action, we as a nation need to re-evaluate how we can best help our neighbors for the good of everyone. If the film is to be believed, we’ve done it before. We can do it again.

“A Place at the Table” was released widely on March 1, but it hasn’t yet reached our theaters. If you want to see it on the big screen, call your local theater and request they bring it here. Alternately, it is available On Demand through Comcast and for rent via iTunes. See this film and think about how you can get involved. Spread awareness, encourage others, call your congressman. We can do better than this.


March 7, 2013

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