“A Place at the Table” starts with what can only be described as flyover-country porn — aerial shots of amber waves of grain, purple mountain majesty, fruited plains, all that good stuff. The sweeping views are about how big America is, how awesome we are, and how much we’ve got. It’s an ironic opening to a film about hunger in America.
When it comes to food, “we have plenty, and we need to remind people of that at the very start,” says Lori Silverbush, co-director of the documentary, which opens Friday.
Her directing partner, Kristi Jacobson, continues: “We wanted to subtly reinforce without being didactic that we live in the wealthiest, lushest nation in the world. We are in many ways the world’s breadbasket — even our cities are gleaming spires of prosperity compared to the rest of the world. And then we wanted to say, ‘And here we go.’ ”
Where we go is places where Americans struggle with “food insecurity.” They’re not starving in the famine sense, but they’re not quite sure where their next meal or groceries will come from.
“A Place at the Table” concentrates on three subjects: Barbie, a single mother from Philadelphia striving to get off government assistance; Rosie, a fifth-grader in Colorado who, in a heartbreaking scene, reacts to a food pantry’s delivery like it’s Christmas morning; and Tremonica, a second-grader in Mississippi who is obese and asthmatic, partially because her mother’s food dollars stretch further in the snack aisle than in the produce section.
The film tackles the country’s food policies — some of which have been untouched since the Depression — in an engaging way, with an overarching message that the government must do more to help a population that is simultaneously hungry and eating itself to death. While many documentaries take a political turn (hello, Michael Moore), Silverbush, Jacobson and executive producer Tom Colicchio, a “Top Chef” judge, believe their film can reach across the country’s political divide.
“There are 50 million Americans that are hungry. That’s a fact, not a stance,” Colicchio says. “Seventeen million children. That’s a fact, not a stance … We just lay out the situation.”
The film shows that a lot of people eat junk food because it’s the only thing available, or the only thing they can afford. And some people, like Barbie in one scene, barely eat at all so that their kids can split, say, a can of ravioli. All in this land of plenty.
“If you’re OK with that condition in our country, the greatest country in the world,” Colicchio says, “then we have to start asking, ‘How great are we if we can’t solve this problem?’”
A Broken System
In “A Place at the Table,” Adam, the sole cop in his Colorado town, makes all the right choices and still can’t afford to buy enough groceries to feed his family. “So much of this problem is a system that’s broken,” says co-director Kristi Jacobson. “No one was going to tell Adam that he shouldn’t have had kids because there was going to come a time when [budget] cuts … [meant] he couldn’t feed his kids without going to a pantry.”