In 1969 CBS News broadcast a special documentary called “Hunger in America,” which so stirred public feeling that the Nixon administration responded with government programs that helped to substantially reduce the number of those affected over the course of the next decade. Beginning in 1980, however, political priorities and policies changed, and the documented number of hungry in the country began gradually to rise, until today it’s counted as fifty million, many of them children.
Producer-directors Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush perhaps hope that their fine but conventional documentary on hunger in contemporary America might have similar impact. It’s unlikely to do so because of changes in political reality and the attitudes of today’s elected leadership and the voting public. But that doesn’t mean that it fails to do an excellent job in laying out the facts, proposing solutions and—most importantly—personalizing the issue by focusing on specific individuals.
Using graphs, statistics, and interviews with activists, social observers, nutritional experts and political figures, as well as archival footage, “A Place at the Table” marshals an array of evidence to show how government subsidy programs, corporate attitudes in agribusiness and location of fully-stocked supermarkets, erratic distribution of fruits and vegetables, and penny-pinching administration of school lunch and breakfast programs have led to serious health issues for a large segment of the population, shown most notably in the obesity epidemic occurring among children (caused, as it’s pointed out, not by too much food but consumption of high-calorie, processed foods). The film is excellent in presenting information on all these matters, and doing so in an accessible, easily digestible fashion. And it doesn’t omit the element of passion in the views of commentators like actor Jeff Bridges, who has been involved in food-distribution programs and even produced a film—“Hidden in America”—dramatizing the issue.
But the film is most powerful when it allows real people—a young Colorado girl unable to keep her mind on schoolwork because of hunger, a single Philadelphia mother tossed off the food stamp program when she finds a job earning a princely $9 an hour, a Mississippi kid suffering from asthma exacerbated by a poor diet and excess weight—to speak for themselves. Graphs and statistics explain the issue; these interviews bring home the reality of it.
It would be nice to think that “A Place at the Table” could have the same effect that Charles Kuralt and his CBS cohorts did in 1969. But this, unhappily, is a different age, and while the filmmakers have done their wok well, it’s unlikely that our politicians or the voting public will respond as those of forty-plus years ago did. More’s the pity, but we’ll probably go on spending trillions on weapons systems while allowing our children to go to bed hungry—a question of skewed priorities that might well be intractable.