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A Place at the Table

March 2, 2013
A Place at the Table

It seems paradoxical that a nation in the grips of our much-discussed epidemic of obesity could also be dealing with hunger on such a scale — one out of six Americans dealing with food insecurity — but really it’s not. As filmmakers Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush make clear in A Place at the Table, the two conditions are all but inextricable in our society. And both of them, it seems, stem from perverse economic incentives.

The problem with hunger is not that there isn’t enough to eat, even locally, the way it might be in sub-Saharan Africa. There is plenty of food, but we seem to have a hard time distributing it. Income inequality and complaints about “the 1%” are not merely sour grapes over some not having as much as others; many people literally do not have enough to eat on a daily basis.

How do we know that there is enough to go around? Because we all but eliminated hunger in America once before. An expansion of federal food aid in the 1960s and ’70s was sufficient social safety net until the Reagan-era tax cuts and military buildup. And we’re spending more now on defense than we ever have before, with less of an enemy worth fighting, so why can’t some of that go to food aid?

The standard conservative line is that charity is preferable to government intervention on social policies. But this ignores the fact that charity is, in essence, a bet that those who have will feel it’s worthwhile to help those who don’t. We don’t run our military on a donation system, hoping that people will find it worthwhile to maintain a fleet of drones; we do not wager with those things we find truly important.

And so much of the shortfall is made up by “emergency” food sources, like food banks. But the food they provide largely goes unexamined; the economics of storage and distribution lead to a greater portion of processed and preserved foods, and a lesser portion of healthy, fresh fruits and vegetables. The same holds true for money spent on school lunch programs, and when food stamps actually reach hungry people in their homes. An average food assistance budget of three dollars a day for each person can only buy about three hundred calories worth of healthy food, versus three thousand calories of processed and recombined corn, wheat, and soybeans.

Why is this? Partly it’s that fresh produce doesn’t stay fresh for long on its own. But more than that, it’s become incredibly profitable to produce vast amounts of the raw materials of processed foods, largely due to government farm subsidies. These laws, originally intended as emergency measures to help family farmers survive in the dust bowl of the 1930s, now serve largely to inflate the bottom lines of agribusiness interests; corporate welfare doesn’t seem to be nearly so distasteful as personal welfare. And while this could serve as yet another source from which to reallocate funds towards ending hunger yet again, it’s no surprise that Archer Daniels Midland has better lobbyists than the working poor.

A Place at the Table lays out these policy truths — and more — but more than this it puts a human face on hunger in America. All sorts of communities suffer, and the filmmakers spend most of their time switching back and forth from single mothers in south Philadelphia to a rural community in Colorado. They also choose, sensibly enough, to spend most of their time on children, for whom the long-term physical and psychological effects of hunger can be the most devastating.

But rest assured, this is a problem that affects adults as well. Some of my closest friends have had, at times, to rely on soup kitchens or food stamps to provide their basic daily sustenance, and sometimes even that has not been sufficient. Some major research universities encourage their graduate students to do the same; this in a nation that talks a big game about the importance of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education.

This is not a problem that will go away on its own, and we have the ability to end it. Even so, just yesterday what little aid we give was taken from the mouths of ten percent of those in need. What do we really value?

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass, if it applies.

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