A couple of weeks ago, in my previous post, I promised to write about the Tulsa premier of A Place at the Table and the discussion that followed. It’s impossible to sum up every issue brought up by the film. It is equally impossible to write a single post about the film and the discussion that followed; too many important topics to cover. So this will be a two-part report highlighting some of the issues that I found particularly relevant. For this first installment, I want to talk about the film itself, with the understanding this in no way represents the entire list of issues raised by the documentary.
A Place at the Table draws its power from the personal stories of people struggling to afford healthy food. Experts on nutrition and hunger push the message further by explaining the negative effects long-term food insecurity has on a person’s health, education and potential. After watching this documentary, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that this problem is bigger than any one charity can tackle; it is bigger than the current funding of our social safety net can address. These are just three of the reasons why:
- The rate and requirements of SNAP benefits are out of sync with the cost of living. As the film tracks the story of Barbie, a single mother in Philadelphia, this fact becomes clear. Barbie loses her SNAP benefits entirely when she begins to earn more money, but despite a slightly higher paycheck her overall financial situation has not improved. Her children are still eating canned noodles instead of a balanced diet and their mental and physical development will be impacted as a consequence.
- The school lunch program, launched under the Truman administration, was a great idea but is currently underfunded. The film points out that less than a dollar a day per child is actually spent on food for lunches, and then demonstrates how it is impossible to make a quality meal that meets dietary needs on that budget.
- The underlying problem here is poverty, not scarcity of food. Poverty is the elephant in the room, and we can’t have a meaningful discussion about hunger without addressing stagnant wages and the distribution of wealth in this country. The film introduces us to a police officer, the only cop to survive layoffs in his small town. He hasn’t had a raise in years. We watch as he walks into a food pantry, in uniform, to pick up donated groceries. Then he discusses how having to reach out for help, because his wages can’t pay the bills, has impacted his life.
This film also deals with common misconceptions about hunger by explaining how empty calories can leave your body hungry and how the costs of hunger in America are visited even on those with sufficient food.
- You can be underfed and obese. Mississippi has the highest rate of food insecurity in the country, as well as the largest rate of obesity. The film shows Tremonica, a second grader in Mississippi, suffering with asthma. She is also a prime candidate to develop diabetes because of her weight. However, her working mother is unable to afford the regular diet of fruits and vegetables her daughter needs to stay healthy. Processed food, filled with empty calories, is more affordable than apples and oranges.
- Ending hunger would cost less than dealing with the negative consequences it causes. The U.S. spends approximately $167 billion dollars dealing with the costs associated with obesity and other health issues associated with malnutrition. The poor, who cannot afford food, are also unable to pay all these medical bills. The cost of unpaid medical bills is passed on to the public, partly through the rising cost of health care. There is also a cost in lost potential, as preventable mental and physical problems associated with poor nutrition impact a child’s education and future health.
The film makes a compelling moral and economic argument for why Americans should find it unacceptable that one in four children are going hungry every day. Overall, the message leaves us with an understanding that food insecurity leads to hunger, hunger leads to negative health and developmental outcomes, and the economic fallout is visited on both the malnourished and society at large.
Later this week I’ll follow up with a post concerning the important discussion that followed the film. In the meantime, I encourage you to watch the film, which is showing in theaters and is available on iTunes. Also, here are additional sources you can go to for information about food programs in the U.S.
- Check out the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities blog for more information on “What SNAP Means for Families and Communities” and to take “A Closer Look at Who Benefits from SNAP.”
- Visit the New America Foundation’s page to read more background and analysis of the Federal School Nutrition Program.