A new documentary from the producers of Food, Inc. premieres today, serving up the critical problem of rising hunger in the United States with a surprising thesis: we’ve already solved it.
… Forty years ago, that is. A Place at the Table , the newest documentary from Participant Media , reveals how political will in the 1960s and 70s ushered in an era of bipartisan-sponsored, government-funded programs that “nearly solved” the problem of hunger.
Compare that with today, in which 50 million Americans rely on food assistance programs – and nearly one-in-two children will require food assistance in their lifetimes. The stark disparity between then and now begs the question: what happened?
A Place at the Table cooks up a historical menu of short-sighted policy (USDA’s initial ‘bail-out’ of farmers that continued decades longer than intended), corporate consolidation (the rise of the agribusiness industry that squeezed out family farmers while taking the lion’s share of government subsidies), and moneyed interests (corporations that now wield substantial influence in Washington) that together over the years have led to misaligned focus in our national policy.
Starting under President Ronald Reagan, social programs aimed at alleviating hunger and poverty underwent serious cuts in favor of defense spending and tax cuts for the wealthy. In response, public sentiment shifted to expecting charities to pick up the slack.
The result, argues the film, was robust protection of food production but an anemic focus on nutrition and rising hunger in our country.
Indeed, the U.S. saw an explosion of charities, food pantries, and soup kitchens – from 200 nationwide in 1980 to more than 40,000 today. Yet 30 million more people require food assistance today than did in 1980.
And those most at risk are our children. By extension, argues the film, so is our nation’s future.
If Food, Inc. focused on the food industry, A Place at the Table situates that industry in the context of public policy, public health, and poverty. The film, much like last fall’s The Line , sews together stories of struggling families across the country; tracing children’s daily lives in small town Colorado and Mississippi, and teachers’ and parents’ efforts to provide for their students and children in urban Philadelphia.
But Table’s real proof is in the numbers: 75 percent of “food deserts” are in cities, many of which – as in D.C. – are in areas with a high concentration of children. We see each president, from Reagan to Obama, promising care for our children, as a meter ticks up steadily from 20 million to 50 million hungry. As the disparity between words and reality grows, we see ever more clearly the growing distortion of priorities in D.C.
A particularly shocking scene takes place not in a kitchen but in a Senate Agriculture Committee Hearing. The Committee has just refused President Obama’s proposal to strengthen child nutrition programs by $1 billion per year. “Hopefully we’ll be able to work this out. I’d hate to pit agriculture against nutrition,” one member says uncomfortably, lamely concluding, “that would seem to be … inconsistent.”
What’s needed to fully, finally solve the hunger crisis? A Place at the Table suggests a one solution: comprehensive government policy that “reclaims agriculture as a policy for all.”
The documentary deploys arguments in favor of promoting children’s health and ending hunger from multiple strategic angles: from military effectiveness (defense spending won’t make us more secure if millions of future young adults are too malnourished or overweight to serve) to economic growth (“we’re wasting billions of dollars by … not fixing hunger.”)
But the most affecting vision of the future is the clear loss of potential for each child relying each day on $0.95-worth of food for a school lunch. And the most galvanizing argument is the moral one.
“You fund your priorities,” says Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at the Senate Hearing on the Child Nutrition Act. “It’s [that simple] — you fund your priorities.”
Today, A Place at the Table asks us to reconsider just which priorities we are funding.
Catherine Woodiwiss is Associate Web Editor at Sojourners.