Activists hungry for a change
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, March 1, 2013
A lot of Americans are going hungry, even as their bellies are full. That’s the central theme of “A Place at the Table,” a documentary whose trenchant message is echoed in the title of the book “Stuffed and Starved,” by Raj Patel.
Along with other food activists -- some as famous as actor Jeff Bridges, founder of the End Hunger Network, and “Top Chef” host Tom Colicchio, an executive producer of this film -- the academic and author Patel appears on camera to drive home the point that hunger is not caused by a food shortage.
In fact, as the film notes, the state of Mississippi has both the highest rate of obesity and the highest rate of something called “food insecurity.” That’s not the chronic, abject starvation that a lot of us think of when we think of hunger, but rather a situation in which the source of one’s next meal is uncertain.
The problem, as “Table” shows, isn’t that the next meal never comes. It’s that when it arrives, too often it is filled with empty calories.
The root cause of this is manifold, as articulated methodically by documentarians Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush. They lay part of the blame at the feet of the Department of Agriculture for allowing its farm-subsidy program to be hijacked by big agribusinesses specializing in corn, wheat and rice -- the staples of the processed-food industry -- instead of family farms. The filmmakers argue, convincingly, that this has led to a situation in which junk food is cheaper to buy than healthy fruits and vegetables.
In other words, a bag of corn chips provides a bigger bang for the buck, calorie-wise, than carrots. That’s economically significant for a low-income family. Even food banks often are forced to stock nutritionally dubious -- and fattening -- items instead of healthier, lower-calorie products.
Distribution also is at fault. The number of urban and rural Americans living in so-called “food deserts” -- areas where there may be convenience stores but no easily accessible grocery stores -- has risen dramatically. For too many people, what’s on the shelves of the local quickie mart is breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Jacobson and Silverbush take approving note of efforts to educate people, showing us a classroom of kids being introduced to a honeydew melon for the first time and loving it. On the whole, however, their film has a tone of intelligent, if subdued, outrage. It deserves to be seen, along with “Food, Inc.,” “King Corn” and other muckraking food docs of recent years.
One thing the movie does not get into is how junk food is not just cheap and fattening, but also addictive. For an expos of the engineering behind your lunchtime chips and soda -- which may rival cigarettes in their ability to hook heavy users -- I recommend reading Michael Moss’s disturbing article in the Feb. 24 edition of the New York Times Magazine, adapted from his new book, “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us.”
Taken as a companion piece to the sharply argued “A Place at the Table,” it delivers a powerful, even nauseating, one-two punch.