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Fix This U.S. Hunger Problem NOW!
AMERICA COULD END ITS HUNGER PROBLEM TODAY.
IF IT REALLY WANTED TO.
A Place at the Table is a new documentary which starkly exposes America’s massive hunger and food insecurity epidemic. The film – which was nominated for the Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize – reveals that currently up to 17 million children regularly face food insecurity in this country, every day.
A Place at the Table was co-directed by Lori Silverbush and Kristi Jacobson (granddaughter of celebrated restaurateur Toots Shorr), and has become this generation’s rallying cry for food justice just as Michael Harrington’s book The Other America was for Kennedy-era kids during the 1960s.
Jacobson and Silverbush spoke frankly to Rock Cellar Magazine about the causes of hunger and malnutrition in America, and how this severe problem can be reversed easily – by citizen activism as well as government policy.
Rock Cellar Magazine: A Place At The Table shows that hunger is not a fringe problem. That it’s a surprisingly massive epidemic currently occurring in America.
Lori Silverbush: Absolutely. And it’s not a problem of the people we’re conditioned to think are going hungry – the derelict, the person who’s not contributing to society. That could not be further from the truth. When 50 million people don’t know how they’re going to feed their family on a given day or where their next meal is coming from that is not something that can be attributed to poor choices.
RCM: And it goes beyond starvation and hunger correct? It’s people who are underfed, malnourished, and so forth…?
LS: Right. Perhaps the term “food insecurity” is a good one because it encompasses the incredible mosaic of emotional and psychological negative effects that come about. When you don’t know how you’re going to get breakfast for your kids the next day or put dinner on the table that night your entire day ends up being consumed with that. You’re not only insecure, you’re scared, worried, depressed and it impacts your productivity and ability to do things.
RCM: What was the inspiration for creating A Place at the Table?
LS: I had a relationship with a young girl who I was mentoring, and I could see that something was not right: She was having a lot of problems, in school, in life, health problems, developmental problems. It came to pass that I learned she was simply going hungry – and that was the cause of most all of this. It was just devastating.
Furthermore, no matter how often I fed her or brought food to her house the problem didn’t go away. The problem would be put off for a day or week, but it would never really go away. And the consequences — the cascade of problems that were a direct result of her going hungry were so vast and far reaching and so sad, that I was getting really frustrated. Everywhere I turned I could see people wanting to do charity, and yet I never saw anybody asking the questions: “Why is this happening? Why are we comfortable with forcing so many people in our nation to eat through charity?
RCM: So you decided a film would be the best way to answer these questions…?
LS: I approached Kristi – she was a documentary filmmaker with a really great reputation. We were friends and acquaintances because in the film world everybody knows each other, and I was a fan of her work. I thought, “Maybe she can confirm for me whether there’s a film in this?” I knew that iif I tried to write it as a fiction film the truth was actually so shocking I would be accused of fabricating it or it would seem melodramatic!
Kristi Jacobson: I was certainly upset by it – and I was intrigued by this notion of a real problem with hunger in America. The immediate research revealed the shocking statistics, and understanding how pervasive the problem is. But the next layer was witnessing the devastating, lifelong consequences that even mild hunger and malnutrition can have on children – that they carry with them for the rest of their lives. The scarring that hunger has on individuals, and thinking that 50 million today experiencing that.
RCM: Very few people in this country believe that hunger could possibly exist now in the U.S., correct?
KJ: Right – what ultimately compelled me to make this story is that the true story about it had not been told. Not told since that exposé that aired on CBS in 1968 – [CBS News Hour: Hunger in America] – that really exposed the devastating problem of hunger in America, and placed the blame on a failure of government.
“If politicians are not gonna get on board to either fund these programs or focus on this issue, at some point they need to be labeled ‘Pro-Hunger.’ It almost has to happen. It almost has to be an embarrassing label put on you that hopefully then maybe you’ll decide you don’t want that label or that stigma, and you’re forced to do something about it.” – Tom Colicchio
LS: And we were both so surprised by what we learned, and so inspired by what we learned, because – just like the hunger crisis back then – it’s solvable!
Hunger is a solvable problem. We have hunger in this country not because of any shortage of food, but because of a political condition caused by a combination of bad policy and a lack of awareness.
KJ: That 1968 documentary awoke the nation to the problem. The nation was outraged, put pressure on their politicians, demanded political solutions, and lo and behold, Congress – led by a bipartisan team of senators Dole and McGovern, and a Republican White House – took on this problem. And by the late 1970s had nearly eradicated it!
LS: Right. Americans got busy! They picked up the phone, contacted their members of Congress, and the response was overwhelming. They embarrassed our legislators, who looked at themselves and said, “How do we fix this?” They ended up crafting – and funding – legislation that more or less wiped out hunger by the end of the 1970s. This was a bipartisan commission, and at the time Nixon was the president – not exactly a socialist.
RCM: Today in America though, there is a sort of anti-moocher mentality – that whole notion that 47%” of Americans are “takers.” Is there a human being to human being way to approach the issue of hunger and still appeal to the folks who don’t like government-based solutions?
KJ: I’d challenge all of them to watch the film. There has been for decades this building resentment and preconceived notions about who, and why, people are on government assistance.
In making this film never once did I come across a person who wanted to be going to a food bank, or collecting food stamps. More than 80% of people who receive government assistance, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, have at least one working parent in the household. And time and time again – not just one working parent but two working parents, aren’t making enough to put food on the table for their families.
LS: You’d hope that if you worked you’d at least be able to feed your family.
RCM: As your film points out the hunger problem is a human problem that transcends politics.
KJ: We have to look at this holistically. We hope this film will reach people of all political persuasions because frankly, both political parties have unfortunately played a big role in the growth of this problem in our country over the past several decades.
RCM: With economic implications as well…
KJ: If it doesn’t morally outrage you that you’re in the wealthiest nation on earth – where we have the food, resources and infrastructure – that 17 million children are unable to reach their potential because they’re hungry, yes well, then let’s look at the financial part of it:
Hunger and obesity – which is a very close relative to hunger and many obese people suffer from malnutrition – those problems combined cost this nation $167 billion a year. To fix the problems, and to address the root causes and to prevent hunger and obesity from continuing would cost significantly less.
RCM: Are distribution of wealth and income equality contributing factors to this hunger epidemic?
LS: One-hundred percent. The reason we have hunger in America is because people can’t afford food. An entire vast swath of this nation is out of work or not earning enough through their daily work to pay for food. Or, they can pay only for food that is heavily subsidized through agro-commodity subsidizing – food that is not nutritionally sound. But yes, the vast income disparity in this country is a huge contributing factor.
RCM: Are you saying that the foods that are most heavily subsidized are the least nutritious?
LS: Big industrial agriculture is enormously influential in politics because they contribute vast sums in campaign contributions. As a consequence of that we see agricultural policies being made all the time to benefit the few at the expense of the many. Calories are cheap. Nutrition is expensive.
We are subsidizing commodity crops even in the years when they’re doing really, really well. We’re flooding the market with very, very cheap ingredients that are not nutritionally adequate and then we demonize people for choosing those things with the very limited budgets available to them. One of the roles of smart government is to incentivize behavior through the types of policies that only government can do.
RCM: But aren’t smart food choices ultimately up to the individual?
LS: People eat what they can afford. Preventable diabetes is growing at breakneck pace largely because of the dietary habits of people who are eating what they can afford. And what is cheap is fast food, junk food, packaged food and the boxed foods that are artificially cheap.
Why should a cheeseburger with six or seven types of production – and advertising and marketing and packaging and travel – why should that cheeseburger cost less than a peach that grows off a tree?
RCM: How did Jeff Bridges get involved in the film?
KJ: Jeff Bridges has been active on this issue for many decades, since the ’80s. He has been a real voice advocating for political and government response to this problem and government accountability.
So T-Bone Burnett – an incredible music composer and producer – got involved with the film and he and Jeff were old friends. So Jeff essentially picked up the phone and called Participant Media, who is producing the film with us, and said, “I want to get involved. What can I do?” We were thrilled. As filmmakers sometimes you’re in the position of having to accommodate a celebrity, but that wasn’t the case here, because he’s such an authority on the issue.
“[Obama] said we were gonna end childhood hunger by 2015. But I’m a little disappointed in our government for not following through with that, and not mentioning anything about hunger in the speeches, or the State of the Union.” — Jeff Bridges
RCM: What impressed my editor as much as your film was the way in which you two are actively exhorting people to get active.
LS: In 1968 it was shocking for Americans to see other Americans going hungry like this that. The citizen reaction was incredibly inspiring, and that was in the days before Facebook, Twitter – before things could go viral – and yet it still was such a pronounced response. Because Americans are not okay with Americans going hungry. Then, or now.
RCM: Your goal seems to be to turn anger and concern into positive ways to solve this hunger problem right now, right away. Can you tell us all ways that Rock Cellar’s readers can help?
KJ: A physician involved in the 1968 campaign to end hunger who had seen us on the Jon Stewart show contacted us. What they did in 1968 was to make sure that our elected politicians could no longer say they didn’t play a role and were held accountable.
That’s the number one most important thing the average citizen can do. Share it with people you know, get them to watch the film. Contact your elected officials, the people you vote for, and let them know this is important to you. The media also plays an important role. The media has failed the American public on this issue up to now. Call for democracy and for government to own up to its failings.
RCM: You quoted one elected official as saying as few as 6 of his constituents would get him to take action. People need to know this. In addition, what are the best links for getting involved?
KJ: We have a campaign website: A Place at the Table – Take Part, and we can be found at Twitter at A Place at the Table, and #TakeYourPlace. We’ve got a Facebook page where we’ve got a great group: A Place at the Table Facebook.
There’s also a group of former SNAP [food stamps] beneficiaries who share their stories on how they were helped at SNAP Alumni. These are successful people and celebrities [musician/producer Moby, Congresswoman Barbara Lee, author Tracie McMillan] who write about a time in their lives when they were experiencing tough times. And how they were fortunate that they had a government willing to support them during those times. Each of these people have given back an incredible return on the investment the government made in them. It’s important for people to share their stories and not feel shame around it.
RCM: Until the film is out on DVD and Blu-Ray, how can people see A Place At The Table?
LS: It was released theatrically, and on iTunes and On Demand all in the same day. It’s really finding its audience on iTunes and On Demand because it’s young people, who know how to navigate that. There’s a lot of movement among young people around this film. They’re not as cynical about the role they have in shaping our democracy. I keep getting emails and tweets from young people all over the country that this film is grabbing their attention and changing how they think about democracy. And that’s the most exciting thing.
RCM: Any indications yet that you’re making a difference in government?
LS: We just learned that as a direct consequence of having seen the film, the senate of West Virginia is introducing legislation to make West Virginia the first state in the country that offers free breakfasts and lunches to all elementary school children. The senate majority leader cited A Place at the Table as what directly impacted his decision to help craft and pass this legislation.
RCM: What was it like appearing on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart?
LS: It was a blast! It was the only time Kristi and I appeared with a live audience. And they whip that audience up into a really enthusiastic frenzy, and the reach of that has been huge. Jon Stewart has this young, college-educated, smart, smart-ass, wonderful viewership, and we’re seeing those kids are the ones showing up to talk, tweet and Facebook about it. It’s really been incredibly exciting.
The DVD and Blu-Ray versions of A Place at the Table will be released June 25.
Music for the film A Place at the Table twas composed and produced by T Bone Burnett and features 14 songs by his band The Civil Wars. Musicians include Sara Watkins (Nickel Creek, the Watkins Family), Greg Leisz (multi-instrumentalist who has played with virtually everyone), Jay Bellerose, Zachary Dawes, Keefus Ciancia, Chas Smith and Colin Linden.
Sensibility Music has just released the soundtrack to A Place At The Table. T Bone Burnett, Civil Wars and the label have agreed to donate the label’s net profits and 100% of the producer/artist royalties received to The Participant Foundation. The Participant Foundation exists to support programs that support a sustainable, peaceful, and hunger-free world.
About the Filmmakers:
Kristi Jacobson: was born in New York City, grew up in New Jersey, and studied sociology at Duke University. She spent her formative years working with her mentor – award-winning documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple. Together they worked on many films including American Standoff, about the Teamsters union.
Prior to A Place at the Table, Kristi directed Toots  – a documentary about legendary restaurant owner Toots Shor – who was also her grandfather. Through that experience she came to know Frank Gifford, Walter Cronkite and Mike Wallace.
Lori Silverbush was born in the suburbs of New York City and attended Cornell University for her undergraduate and NYU for her film degree. She has worked as a screenwriter and director in New York for 20 years, writing and directing the 2006 film On the Outs. A Place at the Table is her first nonfiction film.
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