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A Place at the Table 2012

Highly Recommended

Distributed by Ro*co Films International, llc, 80 Liberty Ship Way, Suite 5, Sausolito, CA 94965; 415-332-6471
Produced by Julie Goldman and Ryan Harrington
Directed by Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush
DVD , color, 84 min.

Sr. High - General Adult
Children, Education, Food, Nutrition, Poverty, Public Health, Politics, Social Problems, Sociology

Date Entered: 08/14/2013

ALA Notable: yes
Reviewed by Wendy Highby, University of Northern Colorado

A Place at the Table is a courageous and effective exposé. It reveals hunger’s scourge, traces its causes, and boldly recommends changes in public policy. The film masterfully maps hunger’s shameful territory. As the opening credits roll, the documentary begins with gorgeous aerial cinematography of geographically diverse areas of the United States. This introduction foreshadows the film’s strength and impressive scope as a comprehensive overview of the topic of hunger and poverty.

Initially, the documentary focuses on Rosie, the daughter of a waitress in rural Collbran, Colorado; she and her extended family experience food insecurity. Rosie’s waitressing mother is one of the many working poor in the United States who do not earn a living wage. Through candid interviews with fifth-grader Rosie, we learn of hunger’s harmful psychological and social impacts upon children. This is another strength of the film. The individual profiles personalize the social problem of hunger, thus increasing audience empathy. Additionally, the documentary provides the sociological context, showing how the community in Collbran responds to the problem. Through the philanthropy of Rosie’s church, minister, and public school teacher, we learn that food banks were never designed for chronic use, the food is often unhealthful (high in sugar), hunger is on the rise, and these local stopgaps are inadequate. The film is ingeniously structured for maximum rhetorical impact, as it proceeds to profile two more communities in the U.S., thus showing that food insecurity affects all kinds of families and communities.

Moving to an urban locale, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, we meet Barbie Izquierdo, a single mother of two. Her segments introduce two more insidious consequences of hunger: developmental delays in infants and children, and painful social stigma. Barbie’s story also illustrates that the transition from welfare to work does not, unfortunately, guarantee one’s food security. The film connects the dots between personal suffering and systemic problems; it transcends the personal realm and moves to the political. We are introduced to Dr. Mariana Chilton of the Philadelphia Children’s Hospital. She organizes a group of single mothers (including Barbie) who struggle with food insecurity. The purpose of the group, “Witnesses to Hunger,” is to travel to Washington, D.C. to lobby Congress regarding the Child Nutrition Act reauthorization. As originally drafted, the Act was supposed to be funded by affluent agribusiness landowners. But ultimately, as the film documents, it was funded by cutting back food stamps, effectively robbing Peter to pay Paul. This follows the ongoing pattern of destruction of the social safety net. The documentary provides historical context, explaining that hunger was virtually eliminated in the late 1970s due to social programs implemented by the Nixon administration, only to return with Reagan’s welfare-slashing policies, and then to escalate with each subsequent presidency. Due to the dismantling of the social safety net, combined with a stagnant minimum wage structure that has not kept pace with inflation, many Americans cannot afford to feed their families. Other factors include special interest lobbying money spent by agribusiness and the fact that fruits and vegetables, unlike grains, do not receive huge agricultural subsidies. The documentary clearly and effectively displays an impressive array of statistics in support of these points.

The film’s third locale is a southern city, Jonestown, Mississippi. There, the nexus of food quality (particularly the lack of fresh fruits and vegetables), individual behavior, and nutrition education is explained. This is accomplished through the profile of a teacher, Odessa Cherry. She must change her own behavior to cope with diabetes and in turn, she passes on her knowledge and educates her students about healthier food choices. Once again, the film artfully covers three levels of complexity. It segues from personal behavior (changing eating habits) and the community response (school system and educators), to the larger systemic problem of federal funding of lunch programs.

Interspersed with the personal and community profiles are clips of numerous experts. For example, economist Raj Patel, fellow at the Food First Institute for Food and Development Policy, raises the issues of power, class, and persistent inequality. Marion Nestle, public health and nutrition expert and New York University professor, explains that corporate health trumps public health in our current system. The filmmakers make a strong case that due to the systemic nature of the problem of hunger, there is a need for significant policy change on the federal level. This is educational documentary filmmaking at its finest. The film describes a social problem on a relatable, personal level, but within well-defined a social and political context. It presents factual and statistical evidence, and features reliable experts. And it offers possible solutions. It should be seen by many high school and college student in the U.S. for curricular reasons (as it applies to such a wide range of subject areas); but it should especially be viewed for humanitarian reasons, as it tackles such an egregious social problem.