Equity & Diversity

Poor People, Poor Food: Screening ‘A Place at the Table’

By Ross Brenneman — March 14, 2013 3 min read
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A new documentary, “A Place at the Table,” recently premiered. Produced by Magnolia Films, the company behind “Food, Inc.” and “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” “A Place at the Table” looks broadly at food insecurity and poverty.

Much of it covers old ground for those of you who read Education Week regularly, but it has the emotional punch of film. Heartstrings, prepare thyselves for tugging.

Let’s take a detailed look:

Most importantly: Is there an adorable child?

Is the new pope Catholic? The primary focus is Rosie, a young Coloradan who can’t focus at school because she can’t get a proper meal. Her family starts receiving food packages, but they contain mostly snack food—filling stuff but without substance. There’s also Tremonica, a 2nd grader with obesity issues, as well as other children with nutritional problems.

Remind me, how come children can be poor and overweight?

The United States is home to many food deserts, areas where fresh produce is scarce or expensive. (Like real deserts, but, sadly, fewer camels.) See, America produces a lot of food, oodles and oodles of it. The United States is, as of 2011, the largest producer of corn, strawberries, milk, beef, chicken, soybeans, and turkey. It’s second in pork, lettuce, oranges, apples, nuts, and eggs. It’s number three in wheat, tomatoes, and potatoes. But food doesn’t always go where it’s most needed. And, in place of retailers of healthy food, fast food and convenience stores spring up.

These people can’t get fruit and vegetables? Aren’t those everywhere?

Fresh fruit and vegetables are available in many places, but they’re not cheap in the same way corn is cheap. Heck, Honeycrisp apples can reach $4.50 a pound. But potatoes? Bread? Those are cheaper than tickets to a community theater production of “Herbie: Fully Loaded.”

What other problems does this movie feature?

Lack of nutritional value in school food. The benefits and limits of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act and its attempt to improve nutritional value in school food. The fact that the HHFKA cut money to SNAP. Congress.

Why haven’t churches and charities solved these problems?

There are a number of groups that give greatly and freely across the United States, but the point of “A Place at the Table” is that charity is not a solution to hunger either in principle or in practice. Philosophically, the film says, it is the government’s duty to help the downtrodden.

And in execution, the work those charities and groups do is not enough. First, there’s the sheer amount of people that need feeding. But, second, think about the prevalence of ramen noodles among donated foods; it’s cheap and sodium-rich. A lot of food that gets donated isn’t freshly pulled from the earth; it’s canned or processed and nutritionally lacking. That’s not to say donated food isn’t helpful—an empty stomach is usually more distracting than empty calories—but there are limits.

So what kind of political solutions does the movie suggest?

The directors look at raising the minimum wage as one idea, an idea that economists are not unified on. President Barack Obama called for a minimum-wage increase in his most recent State of the Union address. Here’s a piece by Christina Romer, former member of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, against the minimum wage, as well as a rebuttal by Harold Meyerson, the editor-at-large of The American Prospect.

What about other solutions? What are schools doing to improve nutrition?

Here’s the Rules for Engagement nutrition archive, which will save us all some time. But the condensed version is that schools are:

1. Increasing the amount of school breakfasts served.
2. Not illegally diverting millions of dollars from their federal school meal funds.
3. Opening school food pantries.
4. Altering their designs to create a motivating environment for eating healthy.

Is this movie just going to depress me?

This is not a portrait kind of movie, where the directors stand back passively. It’s pointed—which is fine. There aren’t a lot of pro-children-dying-of-malnourishment people out there. But just so you know.

In tone, it’s more “An Inconvenient Truth” than it is a Sarah McLachlan ASPCA commercial. You’re not seeing kids with their ribs showing or anything outright traumatizing, so much as the slow, dull body blows of poverty.

So maybe go with a small popcorn instead of a big one?

Bring an emergency salad.

“A Place at the Table” is playing in limited release at inconveniently located theaters. It will probably be available for Netflix streaming in a couple months.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.