Hungry, Hungry Americans

Review of A Place at the Table, Directed by Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush

By COYLE NEAL

A Place at the Table is a documentary exploring the problem of hunger in America. And if your first thought was “wait, what? Hunger in America? The land of the dollar menu and people so regularly fat that it’s actually considered a lifestyle?” then you should probably watch this movie. Once you set aside the occasional leftist claptrap standard in this sort of film, what remains is a perfectly serviceable documentary that discusses the state of nutrition in America. (The fact that they got T-Bone Burnett to do the soundtrack is just icing on the cake.)

The film focuses on three American communities (Philadelphia as the urban sample, as well as small communities in Colorado and Mississippi) and their struggles to overcome the difficulties we have getting quality food on the table.

Strengths:

If nothing else, A Place at the Table is well made and engaging—something which I do not often say about documentaries. (And in an era when anyone with too much money and time on their hands can crank out a movie, a well made and engaging film is an accomplishment worth noting.) In addition to being well made, however, this movie does an excellent job of engaging a number of food-related issues that Americans should spend more time thinking about (heck, maybe even doing something about, like, on a slow day or something). I won’t try to hit everything the film brings up; instead, I’ll just mention a few points it covers exceptionally well:

  • Hunger in America is not starvation; it’s really a problem of food quality and affordability rather than quantity.
  • Efforts to solve this problem so far have been halfhearted and largely driven by special interests. Not that the involvement of “special interests” is automatically bad, of course—the “special interests” in question here tend to be churches and private charities doing things like opening soup kitchens and food banks. The downside is that these special interests have only limited resources, rely on volunteer effort and donations, and really lack the scope and strength to deal with the problem on any kind of larger scale—but then again, who says that problems are best dealt with on a large scale anyway?
  • The rise of industrial farming over smaller-scale “family” farming has a direct impact on what and how we eat. This is a particularly critical point, given that most Americans live either urban or suburban lifestyles and easily forget how dependant we are on the sources of our food. (If you were wondering, family farms tend to produce higher quality and more diverse foods; industrial farms tend to produce cheaper foods in greater quantities.)
  • Despite the dump trucks full of money poured into our education system, those funds have functionally no impact on the quality of what is being served in school cafeterias around the country. Not that there’s anything new about this fact, it’s just useful to have a reminder of it from time to time.
  • “Hunger” is directly related to “poverty,” which in turn raises questions like “why do we have poor people at all?” Again, there’s nothing new here either—this is such a long-standing question in America that it goes back to the very first political document in our history: John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” sermon. We all know it from the passage about how America will be a beacon to the nations, etc., etc. What we either have forgotten or just never knew in the first place is that it opens with the answer to the question of why God ordained that in all times some “must be rich, some poor”?

Although A Place at the Table may have bitten off more than it can chew in the shorter format of a feature film (this would have been much better as a TV documentary series—are you listening Ken Burns?), for its length it made its points concisely and well.

Weaknesses

For all its strengths, there are a number of significant weakness that should be addressed (perhaps they should make a sequel? Or maybe they go into more detail in the companion book).

First, with all the time the movie spends thinking about food, its discussion of agriculture and agricultural policy is naïve, and at times borderline ignorant. For example, it points out that existing farm subsidies focus on less healthy crops like corn and ignore healthier crops like fruits and vegetables. The clearly implied question is “wouldn’t it be better if this money could be shifted around to support fruit, vegetable, and dairy production?” Well… maybe. But from a strictly agricultural perspective, corn is functionally the only crop that can be grown and mass-produced in our particular climate with any amount of economic efficiency (with some allowance for the cereal grains as well). One farmer can raise and harvest hundreds of acres of corn by himself in a single season, given an average climate and the proper equipment (where the bulk of subsidy money goes when it actually manages to reach the family farmer). Fruits and vegetables, on the other hand, are labor- and time-intensive, are much more easily destroyed by inclement weather, and involve a committed investment of generations. Simply increasing the subsidies spent on them would result in zero short-term gain, and only a very miniscule long-term payoff.

As noted above, the film rightly connects the problem of hunger with that of poverty. However, it wrongly implies that there is a solution to the problem of poverty. As Winthrop points out in the sermon linked above, and as Jesus himself said, there is no complete solution to the problem of poverty. (Unless we’re going to take the communist approach and just make everyone poor and then declare that no one is.)

The two biggest weaknesses of the film, however, are its misdiagnosis of our food problem and its wrong-but-all-too-American proposed solution.  A Place at the Table proposes the standard American solution for a public problem:

  1. Identify the problem and raise “awareness” if possible.
  2. Feel bad about it.
  3. Insist that Congress pass a law.
  4. Shovel money at the problem (but only rich people’s money—don’t raise my taxes!).
  5. Repeat steps 1-4 indefinitely, or until reality adjusts accordingly and the problem is magically solved.

Our gut reaction after a century of progressive politics (on both the left and right) is to demand that all our problems be solved, without any cost to us individually, in one sweeping (mostly symbolic) national measure. When that measure inevitably fails to work, why we’ll just spend more and more on it until things are fixed. The idea that some problems can best be fixed by personal involvement, self-sacrifice, and efforts on a local scale simply doesn’t enter into the thoughts of most people. And here’s where I desperately want to go on my “get involved in your town council/state government and fix it yourself” rant, but since this post is already running long, I’ll move on.

Most importantly, this movie misdiagnoses the true American problem with food. It is not one of money (with important exceptions of course), nor is it even one of availability and production. The problem of hunger in America is one of consumption. We are a nation of gluttons who demand abundance in everything, but especially in our dessert and convenience products. We have insisted on the availability of affordable foods loaded with sugar (corn syrup being a cheap alternative—and thus another reason for corn’s dominance) that in another age would have been a rare luxury indulged in only occasionally—and we have done this at the expense of the basics necessary for healthy living. Our stomach has become our god, and simply finding new and cheaper ways to feed that god will do nothing to solve our problems. If we want to break the tyranny of processed and unhealthy foods, we have to change our desires for them. As long as we demand a grocery store full of hundreds brands of potato chips and soda and only one aisle of (usually low-quality) fresh foods, we should expect American farmers to comply. In other words, personal reform rather than public legislation is the only real hope here.

Of course, talking about “hunger” as fundamentally an issue of sin has to be done delicately. We certainly would never want to suggest that the families featured in A Place at the Table would be better off if only they would desire healthy foods rather than the more affordable junk food (to their credit, that seems to be the case anyway—for those featured in the movie it really was a matter of cost). So far we have just been thinking about food policy on a national level. Once we bring it down to the level of individuals, our reflections need to shift from a focus on sin to a focus on personal responsibility and mercy. Christians—especially people who are both Christians and middle class—have a responsibility to care for those who need the help. Great care has been shown for us in the Gospel: all of our hunger has been satisfied without money and without cost to us as Christ’s life and death has brought us into a relationship with God. If such mercy has been shown to us spiritually, how can we do less than show the same kind of mercy physically? (Isaiah 58:6-8)

What we have to remember, is that this is a personal responsibility. We cannot outsource it to the government or transform it into legislation. While we can argue about the place of public programs like food stamps and welfare (I happen to think they have quite a bit of value), what we cannot argue about is that the Christian must love his neighbor. Sometimes, this means helping him eat.

But there simply aren’t enough Christians in the country for us to solve this problem alone. If nothing else, A Place at the Table makes clear that this is a problem that will either be solved by the mass involvement of the nation, or it will not be solved at all. While I disagree with their suggested solutions, I still recommend the film as a useful introduction to thinking about the problem of hunger in America.

Dr. Coyle Neal grew up in rural Montana. He teaches politics and history in Washington, DC. 

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