It's long been a cliché of comically hungry characters, especially in cartoons, to look at friends and begin to envision them as hearty food. While we're pretty much all familiar with this punchy visual image, few of us probably think of it as likely to occur in real life. And yet, there it is in the new documentary A Place in the Table, a reverie recounted with a sense of its absurdity but also apparent honesty by a fifth grader who has known debilitating hunger.
Directed by Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush, A Place in the Table looks at food insecurity, an existential state in which an individual or family may not know where the next meal is coming from, or if it will provide sufficient nutrition. Millions of Americans live hand to mouth, and millions more make do on diets of processed foods that will inevitably prove devastating to their health. The hallucinating fifth grader hails from Collbrun, Colorado, described by one resident as "close-knit, caring, and yet almost desperate." In other words, it's a place where having to make resources "stretch" is a common daily struggle. The film provides plenty of credibly damning statistics (though, touching off a pet peeve of mine, they're rarely sourced), one of the key ones being that 30% of U.S. families are food insecure. Jacobson and Silverbush identify as ground zero Mississippi, the state with the highest rate of food insecurity and the highest rate of obesity, twin indicators of low income.
While A Place at the Table provides plenty of moving case studies, it's most useful for its prismatic look at the problem of American hunger, examining the problem's recent history, its root causes (principally poverty, of course, but also farm subsidies that determine the marketplace by making processed foods cheaper and more accessible than fresh produce), and its inextricability from other national crises: how the hunger problem multiplies the healthcare problem and the education problem, as well as their attendant costs.
The film approximates that 23.5 million Americans live in so-called "food deserts" born of the shipping principle "maximum delivery, minimum cost," and looks at the disproportionate impact on children who, because they are undernourished, have a diminished capacity to learn. Jacobson and Silverbush also briefly exhume the relevant news story of Massachusetts Representative James McGovern, who discusses his experimental one-week "food-stamp diet" (during which he learned the average food-stamp benefit is $3 a day).
It's a challenge getting butts in seats for a film like A Place in the Table—after all, it's hardly a date movie—so it's understandable that the filmmakers recruited a Special Guest Star in Jeff Bridges, the actor who has made the End Hunger Network one of his primary causes (he also produced a TV-movie, excerpted here, on the subject of domestic hunger: Hidden in America). Bridges lends his engagingly folksy voice of reason, pointing out how the U.S. is currently "in denial" about a problem that well-funded government programs once had in check.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]