Wednesday, May 8, 2013

why you need to watch "A Place at the Table"

I actually saw A Place at the Table about a month ago, thanks to Amazon Prime allowing me to rent it while it was in theaters. I've been stewing on it since, wondering whether or not to write about the issue of hunger. After all, I live in a two-income household where we are most decidedly NOT food insecure, and I also grew up in a family where I never went one day hungry. I've always been grateful for that, at least on a surface level. But I've never felt that gratitude so profoundly as I did when I saw this film.

Here's the synopsis, from the film's website:

Fifty million people in the U.S.—one in four children—don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Directors Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush examine the issue of hunger in America through the lens of three people struggling with food insecurity: Barbie, a single Philadelphia mother who grew up in poverty and is trying to provide a better life for her two kids; Rosie, a Colorado fifth-grader who often has to depend on friends and neighbors to feed her and has trouble concentrating in school; and Tremonica, a Mississippi second-grader whose asthma and health issues are exacerbated by the largely empty calories her hardworking mother can afford.

You read that correctly. 25% of American children are food insecure, meaning that they don't know where their next meal is coming from. 1 in 6 Americans don't have enough to eat. Among countries with advanced economies, America ranks worst for food insecurity among its citizens. 1 in 2 American children will receive supplemental food assistance during their lifetimes. Half. More than 23 million Americans live in food deserts, where the availability of fresh, healthy food is severely limited if it exists at all and a grocery store with the amenities most of us take for granted is a car ride away.

This documentary was powerful, not just because of the facts and statistics it presented about how bad the problem actually is, but because it made you look into the faces of hungry people. It forced you to confront the grim realities that families across America confront every day - how do you put your son to bed at night when he asks for more food and you have no money and nothing in your cupboards and you've already exhausted your allotted food pantry distribution? What do you do when you know your daughter isn't doing well in school because she's so hungry she can't concentrate? How do you get a nation of simultaneously obese and hungry people? How is this happening in America, of all places?

For the first time in history, we have a hunger problem in our country that is not due to a shortage of food. America produces more food than we could ever possibly consume, and as we know, much of it is wasted. But we have spent trillions of dollars on food subsidies for corporations and not individuals; we spend more money bailing out banks than we do our own working poor. We give government subsidies for unhealthy calories - as the price of fresh, healthy food rises, the cost of packaged, corn based junk goes lower and lower. If you need calories to survive, you can get the most caloric bang for your buck on the fast food dollar menu. Why are we surprised when this type of diet takes its toll?

This film highlights some great work food banks are doing. In my area, the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank does amazing work. Mark and I are even planning on growing an extra raised bed of food this summer for its produce donations. But food banks can't provide for every need, and they have to function with what they are given. Donations that come from grocery stores are often processed, shelf-stable foods. We can't feed America on charity alone. We need real, bipartisan legislative protections for food assistance and school lunches. Hunger doesn't have any regard for party politics and it doesn't discriminate. Many of us who are food secure now could just as easily not be, given the right combination of circumstances.

Which brings me to the biggest lesson I learned from this film. A reminder, more than a lesson. I think that one of the legacies American society inherited from its forefathers was the attitude that if you just work hard enough, you'll be fine. Self-sufficiency has been our motto for centuries, to the point where people hear the words welfare and food stamps and equate that with laziness and fraud. Any system that we try to run as humans will have its share of fraud and people that manage to take advantage of the system. But there are people who work more hours a week than I do, in harder circumstances, that still need welfare to feed their kids. And they aren't sitting at home watching cable drinking booze and collecting the government's money. I worked at a grocery store in graduate school, and the people that came through with EBT cards weren't flaunting their good fortune for everyone to see, that's for damn sure.

This film reminds you that people just like you are going to go to bed tonight with an ache in their stomachs because they didn't eat today so their kids could. Or they ate today, but have no idea whether they will tomorrow. If it was your child asking you for food because he was so hungry he couldn't sleep, wouldn't you hope that someone had stood up for you in the halls of Congress and in the White House to give you a stronger safety net? Food is fundamental and we need to treat it as such. 

We cannot hope as a country to accomplish real social change until we feed our people. Food and water and shelter are among the most basic of needs, and in a country with overflowing wealth, it's a travesty that we allow the basic needs of our citizens to go unanswered. How can we expect to develop the leaders of tomorrow when malnutrition stunts children's ability to learn and grow? Which future scientist or world leader is going to bed without a full belly tonight?

Challenge yourself and watch A Place at the Table. Find out what you can do to take a stand against hunger here. Consider also donating to your local food bank to help meet immediate needs, especially if that food bank takes fresh food donations. When you are drowning in zucchini and tomatoes in a few months, stop and be grateful for the bounty with which you are blessed and share. 

Starting with a food bank garden bed and letters to my legislators, I'm making a commitment to myself to revisit this issue again until I'm satisfied that I'm doing my part to give everyone a place at the table. Will you?

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