Review: A Place at the Table

A Place at the Table. Dir. Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush. Perf. Jeff Bridges, Tom Colicchio, Ken Cook. Participant Media, 2012. Film.

Made by Participant Media, the same company that produced 2008 film Food, Inc., A Place at the Table creates a clear picture of hunger and food insecurity as it exists today in America. It investigates a handful of today’s 50 million incidents of food insecurity, working to dispel the myth that hunger is reserved for those who are literally starving, and proposes solutions which center around government and policy changes.

The film is similar to Food, Inc. in that its main drive is in-depth storytelling of individuals and families. Unlike Food Inc., however, it is not broken up into themed chapters. Instead, these individuals and families reappear in a non-linear fashion, contributing to each others’ stories in order to add to themes which weave throughout. These characters include Barbie Izquierdo, Philadelphia single mother of two (one of whom has various health problems) who depends on SNAP and struggles to find a job, only to lose her benefits when she finally finds a job; Colorado 5th grader Rosie, who cannot focus in school because she often goes hungry, relies on community resources, and hopes her kids will have a better life than she; and Tremonica, an obese, asthmatic, and diabetic Mississippi child who embodies the effects of her state’s notoriously calorie-dense, nutrient-deficient diet. The film follows these characters throughout the country to reveal food insecurity’s main causes (lack of access, lack of money, lack of education and prohibitive or counterproductive government policies) and effects (hunger, malnutrition, stress, depression, humiliation, obesity, learning disabilities, diabetes).

Other characters are highlighted to convince the viewer that government intervention is necessary, by highlighting that these characters can only do so much, and especially within a system that works against them. Barbie’s confidant, as well as doctor and fellow “Witnesses to Hunger” advocate, Mariana Chilton, brings Barbie to Washington, explaining “these guys are the ones who make it happen.” Rosie’s Pastor Bob Wilson runs a soup kitchen, yet sees that the need is greater than what he is able to supply. Finally, Tremonica’s teacher Odessa Cherry teaches her enthusiastic 2nd graders about fruits and vegetables, but cannot help parents who work with a limited budget and whose dollars go further when buying junk food than produce.

Narration, info-graphics, and commentary add to the film’s message that alternative aids are meant to be emergency resources, and that government and policy change are the only realistic means for ending food insecurity. Occasional narration guides and offers clarification or shocking facts when necessary (example: 23.5 Americans live in food deserts, 75% of which are urban; 70% of USDA subsidies go to 10% of its beneficiaries, and only 4% are for fruits and vegetables). Interjections by authors, activists, politicians, doctors, chef Tom Colicchio and actor Jeff Bridges offer insight on characters’ first-hand experiences, often allowing the viewer to gain greater meaning from them (Ex: One commentator explains that 85% of poor Americans have at least one job). Animated info-graphics offer a timeline of hunger in America, revealing to the viewer that hunger, obesity, and food insecurity is not a new problem, but that it was almost solved in the 1970s until Reagan’s tax cuts and military spending.

A Place at the Table creatively traces the leading causes of food insecurity, examines the health-related repercussions and emotional toll of such food insecurity, and is able to convince the viewer that food insecurity is a serious problem which can, must and should be remedied through government aid. The film does a good job of finding people throughout the country with shockingly similar stories and revealing the ubiquitous nature of food insecurity. It is not overly laden with facts, but is mainly story-based. Yet it still presents a clear and credible case.

A Place at the Table had a few shortcomings. The film had a clear focus on the effects of food insecurity on children. As a result, it mostly neglected the elderly, disabled, homeless, and unemployed.  This may be because it is easiest to argue that children deserve food no matter what, especially when marketing to Americans who, as one commentator explains, “have a love-hate relationship with the poor.” It was also a fairly one-sided narrative, with most commentators sharing extremely similar opinions and merely working to seamlessly reinforce each others’ views. The film left it up for no debate that governmental action is the only solution to systemic food insecurity.

Finally, my biggest problem with the film was that while it was able to draw viewers in and convince them that consumer interest and power is necessary to get legislators to act, there were no clear action steps prescribed! After empowering viewers to be the change, the film basically says “this is wrong–do something.” The final moment of the film encapsulated this perfectly, as it revealed a screen with the words “Everyone Deserves a Place at the Table” and then a number to text in order to donate $10. There was no mention of Participant Media’s website “Take Part,” which has created advocacy and education opportunities, and no simple advocacy steps to leave with. While effective in conveying a complicated issue in a compelling and easy-to-follow manner, A Place at the Table left me sad, angry, energized, and ready to fight hunger, yet without any outlet for this inspiration.