Review: 'A Place at the Table'
America has a hunger problem. The good news? We know the solution. The bad news? It involves convincing the federal government to properly support and fund programs that have been neglected for almost 35 years. This is the world we live in, the one that A Place at the Table does its best to examine and deconstruct. We have enough food, but a whole bunch of of Americans can’t get to it. Small towns are ignored by trucks carrying fruits and vegetables. Mothers and fathers in poor urban areas have to travel for hours to shop at a fully stocked supermarket. Processed items are much cheaper, but the prices of fresh food continue to rise. Almost everyone agrees that concentrated assistance from the government would solve many of the country’s problems. In fact, at about its halfway point, A Place at the Tablereminds us that hunger in America was nearly eradicated by the end of the 1970s. A CBS documentary on hunger inspired the nation, and politicians came together to strengthen a system that provided food to the needy.
But then Ronald Reagan came to power, and money began to be siphoned from these programs. Military spending went up, tax cuts increased, and food stamps and school lunches suffered. Meanwhile, food corporations and super farms that produce corn, grains and rice started receiving massive amounts of government subsidies; fruit and vegetable farms got (and get) almost nothing. As a result, hunger hasn’t decreased in years. Even under Democratic leaders with (seemingly) nobler aspirations, the increases have merely slowed. A Place at the Table does an excellent job of clarifying that hunger doesn’t have to produce a starving child with visible ribs; it often means an obese child who eats chips and cookies because that’s all his family can afford. We’re given glimpses of how hunger affects people all across the nation. A single mother of two in Philadelphia finally finds a full-time job, and as a result is instantly booted from the food stamp program she desperately needs to help feed her son and daughter. A family in Colorado receives weekly assistance from a local church service, but it’s a mishmosh of Ramen noodles and apple pie bars; not exactly what the kids will need to stay healthy. As one of the numerous talking heads notes, very few Americans want their fellow citizens, especially children, to go hungry. But everyone fears the idea of swindlers getting something for nothing, even if it means that those really in need pay the price. There’s a stigma attached to the less fortunate in this country: They deserve it. “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps, poor people, that’s what John Wayne would do.” So the challenges have been laid out: Overcome decades of misguided loathing, convince politicians swayed by lobbyist dollars to focus on citizens instead of corporations, and ensure that existing programs become properly funded and expanded. Sounds more than a little daunting. But don’t worry, folks, Jeff Bridges is on the case. The national spokesman for the No Kid Hungry campaign stops by to add a little star power, and healthy food aficionados like Michelle Obama and Tom Colicchio are both shown angling for a revamped system. I expected A Place at the Table to build to the ultimate kicker: The end result of all this hunger/obesity is a level of unhealthiness that’ll place an enormous financial and
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medical burden on our health care system. But this is only touched upon briefly, an unfortunate victim of the movie’s broad strokes: It tries to cover it all, and that sometimes deadens the message. But the film ultimately succeeds in addressing an issue that doesn’t come with a lot of gray areas. Some foods are bad for you and some foods are good for you, and we need to provide access to, and education about, the good ones. It’s frustrating to hear that the only lasting solution is “hope politicians decide to help out,” but as Bridges puts it, if another country was treating our children this way, we’d be at war. Offering even a basic level of assistance is literally the least the government can do, and one can only hope that’ll sink in before it’s too late.