“A Place at the Table” is the title of a new movie, starring Jeff Bridges. The film, and its companion book (“A Place at the Table: The Crisis of 49 Million Hungry Americans and How to Solve It,” by Participant Media, Peter Pringle [Editor]) is a sobering look at the simultaneous glut and shortage of food in America. “A Place at the Table” leaves little doubt that hunger is widespread, and increasing. For any serious citizen who seeks to ensure a place at the table for all Americans, this book and this movie cover hunger in America in all its aspects, shining a bright light on progress to date and challenges remaining.
The progress to date is that we have proved we could tackle hunger as a nation in the past – even though we have failed to maintain our effort. Tragically the absolute numbers of people in hunger, especially children, is growing. Important parts of the War on Poverty under Presidents Johnson and Nixon have been cut and cut again. Strong efforts during the 1960s and 1970s reduced hunger in America significantly, but those gains have vanished under an anti-government tide over the last three decades. And then came the Great Recession.
“A Place at the Table” offers findings that again and again jolt the viewer/reader:
- By 2010 there were 9 million children under 6 in hungry households, with 533,000 at severe risk, up from 140,000 in 2006.
- During the first 1000 days of life, a well-nourished child’s brain forms 700 neural connections a second. So recent cuts, including in last week’s sequester, to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) mean enormous spending in the future for people with limited brain development.
- More than 23 million people live in a “food desert,” far from fresh meat, fruits, or vegetables. The result is that these people, mostly poor, eat cheap junk foods, readily available everywhere, that ironically create obesity in poorly-fed people.
- The byzantine world of crop subsidies has morphed from Depression-era support to small farm families into a present-day entitlement for a small group of large landowners. Most food-crop subsidies go to agribusinesses growing wheat, corn, and rice, keeping the cost of junk foods low, while subsidies to fruit and vegetable growers lag well behind.
- As a result, since 1980, the price of junk food has declined 40% but the price of fruits and vegetables have risen 40%.
- Food stamps used to be good only for healthy foods – dairy, eggs, citrus, and vegetables. But those limits were dropped decades ago, so now food stamps buy junk food too. And since many Food Stamps recipients live in food deserts and are more likely to buy junk food, recipients’ health may suffer instead of being strengthened.
- In 1980 there were 200 food banks in this country; today, there are over 40,000.
- Medical problems stemming from poor diet costs Americans $250 billion a year. Most of this money could be saved by a sensible national food policy.
The challenge now is to recognize hunger as a national problem that governments at all levels must make a priority -- again. With the three-decade decline of government support to hungry people, “A Place at the Table” notes the tremendous growth of charities trying to fill the gap – but concludes that charities cannot fill the gap. Like bucket brigades of old that enlisted lots of citizens but failed to put out fires, volunteer groups cannot match paid, well-trained fire fighters – government employees! After lengthy discussions of food banks and crop subsidies and school-lunch programs and infant-feeding and the history of food stamps, “A Place at the Table” calls for concerted, bipartisan, national efforts to address what is now a national problem – and a catastrophe for many families already.
As Jeff Bridges says in the Foreword to the book: “Charity is an important provider of emergency assistance, but it is not a way to feed a nation. We don’t protect our national security through charity, and we shouldn’t protect our families that way either….What could be more important for our nation than finding a solution to this important problem with such an impact on our future? If another country was doing this to our children, we’d be at war.”
“A Place at the Table” is playing at Landmark E Street Cinema, 555 11th Street NW, Washington, DC. The film can also be downloaded from iTunes or Amazon.com.
Peter Spain is a volunteer for Food for Others. For all information about donating or volunteering for Food for Others, call Nikki Clifford at 703-207-9173, or you may go to foodforothers.org.