While she was mentoring a young girl in East Harlem, N.Y., filmmaker Lori Silverbush received a disturbing call from a teacher who said the 12-year-old was spotted foraging through the trash at school for food.
“I was shocked and devastated,” Silverbush said. She immediately went to her husband—celebrity chef Tom Colicchio—and arranged for the girl’s family to receive food for several days, but she quickly realized the inadequacy of the response.
“We could bring all kinds of food, and in a day or two days, the problem was still there,” she said. “We hadn’t fixed the problem.” The same was true of the extensive efforts by Colicchio, head judge on television’s Top Chef and founder of more than a dozen top-tier restaurants, to address hunger problems through charity.
“Here he was, and all these chefs were raising millions of dollars to feed people, and the problem still wasn’t fixed,” Silverbush said. “We realized it didn’t solve the problem no matter how much Tom and other chefs raised.”
Silverbush, whose first feature film On the Outs in 2004 received numerous awards, contacted Kristi Jacobson, director of a host of documentaries over the past decade, to ask her to team up on a documentary about the nation’s hunger problems. Colicchio agreed to be executive producer and brought several other producers on board, including Motto Pictures founder Julie Goldman.
The result was A Place at the Table, an eye-opening film from Magnolia Pictures that debuted last week at the E Street Cinema in Washington. It will be showing in theaters across the country over the next two months and is available on DVD and through on-demand services.
Food is abundant in America, the film makes clear, yet at least 50 million Americans, including 17 million children, are beset with “food insecurity,” meaning they don’t have sufficient resources to adequately feed themselves or their families at all times.
Many of those people suffer in silence, fearful of being labeled “takers” or freeloaders if they seek help, so the problems of hunger are not well known to the public.
“As a nation, we hold very dearly to the idea that we can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We’re very independent,” Silverbush said. “The flip side of that narrative is that if we’re not doing so well, maybe we did something wrong or there must be somehow that we are to blame. People have taken that very much to heart and walk around with a sense of shame and embarrassment, and that just keeps it hidden in plain sight.”
“What we’ve learned, frankly, is that people aren’t to blame for this situation,” she said. “The system is broken.”
A Place at the Table illustrates the flaws in U.S. food policies through the stories of three people: a working single mother in Philadelphia who struggles to feed her two children on less than $5 a day in food stamps; a fifth-grader in Colorado whose family relies on food banks for many meals; and a second-grader in Mississippi who is unhealthy and obese because so much of her diet consists of processed foods that are cheaper and more available than fruits and vegetables.
The documentary features appearances by Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., who barely survived a week living on food stamps (“I was tired, I was cranky because I couldn’t drink coffee because coffee was too expensive,” he says in the film), and by actor Jeff Bridges, who notes that the number of food banks and soup kitchens has exploded from 200 in 1980 to 40,000 today because government programs don’t provide enough help for hungry people.
“We don’t fund our Department of Defense through charity,” Bridges says in the film. “We shouldn’t see that our kids are healthy through charity either.”
Colicchio argues that the problems can be solved if people demand action from the government, much as they did in 1968 after CBS aired a haunting program called Hunger in America, which prompted a public outcry for federal programs that eliminated the problem in a few short years.
“I think it gave Kristi and Lori a sort of comfort in knowing they can make a film that can change things, because it did before—and it needs to happen again,” Colicchio said.
“We have programs,” Jacobson said, “but they’re not meeting the needs of our populations that need them. If we do reform and modernize them, it will save us money in the long run,” she said, because well-fed children will have fewer health problems and perform better in school.
“Our politicians are not going to do something unless they feel that there’s a mandate from their constituents to do it,” said Silverbush. “We can’t expect government to get things right if we haven’t communicated to them what that means, and what we expect. And in the absence of us speaking, of course they’re going to answer to whatever interests are funding elections….
“At the end of the day, we want people to come see this movie, get educated, get inspired and excited as we did once we learned how solvable it is…. I really believe a passionate, informed electorate is unstoppable.”
This article appears in the March 5, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily as Hungry for Change.