Even people who take a reasonable degree of interest in documentaries often have a list of important-sounding docs they know they’ll never get around to watching. Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush’s “A Place at the Table,” which addresses the alarming prevalence of hunger in America, may very well be on that list, and you can see why. Everyone knows hunger is a problem in this country. But as a documentary subject, its glamour quotient is right down there with root vegetables.
But even if “A Place at the Table” sits fairly low on the glamour scale – and if, in places, it suffers from Power Point-itis, a tendency to make its points with charts and graphics rather than with stories and faces – it’s still a persuasive brief on an issue most of us don’t like to think about. How can it be that, in the richest nation in the world, one in six Americans has to worry about were his or her next meal is coming from?
That’s not an easy question to answer, but Jacobson and Silverbush strive to untangle as many of its knotty threads as possible. They bring their cameras to Collbran, Colorado, a place with a gorgeous landscape, but also one in which people struggle to make enough money to feed their families. (The cheerful young girl they meet there, Rosie, at first talks about how her “tummy growls” when she gets hungry, and then goes on to detail that it hurts so bad “I feel like I’m going to barf.”) The intention is to show that hunger isn’t just an “urban” problem, though of course, it’s that too: The filmmakers introduce us to Barbie, a young mother of two in Philadelphia who, at the beginning of the movie, is receiving public assistance and still isn’t able to purchase enough food to adequately feed her family.
The problems are myriad, and Jacobson and Silverbush turn to interviewees including author and food activist Marion Nestle, Massachusetts Congressman James McGovern and Jeff Bridges, cofounder of the End Hunger Network, to help make sense of a problem that seems almost incomprehensible. Nestle explains that while the cost of processed foods has dropped sharply since 1980 (thanks in part to government subsidies’ being granted to large agribusinesses), the cost of healthy fruits and vegetables has risen. That reality underscores the link between hunger and obesity: Processed, high-calorie, low-nutrition foods are a cheaper way for parents to feed their families, while fruits and vegetables – generally grown on smaller and/or family farms – are either too costly or unattainable.
While that may seem astonishing to city dwellers who can pick up tomatoes or ears of corn at their local bodegas, the reality is that millions of Americans – the documentary cites the figure 23.5 million – live in “food deserts,” places where fresh food isn’t readily available. And the government isn’t helping nearly as much as it should: The passage of the 2010 Hunger Free Kids Act might have been a good thing – if the money to fund it hadn’t come directly from food stamp programs.
“A Place at the Table” is cogent without being scolding. (Don’t be put off by the too-precious music and the shots of amber waves of grain that open the movie.) Jacobson’s previous credits include “Toots,” a 1996 documentary about her grandfather, Manhattan restaurant owner and raconteur Toots Shor. Silverbush directed, with Michael Skolnik, the 2004 fictional drama “On the Outs.” “A Place at the Table” is a fairly no-frills effort, but the ideas behind it are sound. “If making sure people have enough to eat isn’t an important issue, then I don’t know what the hell is,” Congressman McGovern says at one point. That’s the guiding principle behind this low-key but effective documentary.