‘A Place at the Table:’ New documentary explores hunger in America

“A Place at the Table” looks at America’s eating habits and how lawmakers can help relieve hunger for millions of Americans. The documentary featuring chef Tom Colicchio and actor Jeff Bridges opens March 1 in theaters and will also be available on demand. (Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures and Participant Media/The Washington Post)

More than 50 million people in the United States are “food insecure,” meaning they don’t know where their next meal will come from. Of those, 16.7 million are children. The makers of a new documentary, “A Place at the Table,” hope that by raising awareness of the prevalence of hunger in America, they can make a dent in those numbers.

I recently sat down with directors Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush, and executive producer Tom Colicchio, to talk about hunger in the United States, how it affects children, and what people can do to help. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation.

How did you come to make this film?

Silverbush: I was directing a fiction film based on the lives of young kids who were in juvenile jail. I was meeting with these kids and I learned that just about every kid that I met there had an experience with hunger. They had known hunger. And I saw a link there.

Years later, I was mentoring a young girl whose family was having a hard time, they were in and out of shelters and we learned that she was going hungry. It was impacting every part of her life. In fact, the principal of her school . . .called to say she was foraging in the trash for food. . . .It was shocking, and very upsetting. I think I must have realized on some level that to try to tell this as a fiction, people wouldn’t believe it, because the truth is even stranger than fiction.. . . 

I’m married to Tom and he’s been in the anti-hunger space for a long time, raising money, doing a ton to try to support the existing programs and food banks that are out there. And no matter how much money they raise, the problem keeps getting worse.

How did being parents affect you when making the movie?

Silverbush: I had two babies over the course of making this film. And I suddenly found that I cared in a way that I never had before. . . . What does it say about us as a nation that there’s a certain level of hungry children that we find acceptable?

You look at your own kids and you think, imagine if they didn’t have the tools they need to succeed, and we are absolutely making that choice on behalf of 17 million children every day. . . . I would get very emotional thinking about those kids. How come my kids get to eat okay, and this poor child, who is just as blameless and just as deserving, doesn’t?
How is hunger affecting the moms you spoke with?

Jacobson: [One of them] not just once, but over and over again, talked about the horrible way it made her feel to put her kids to bed hungry at night. To know that their stomachs were growling, that she did not have the food. Or if she gave them that food tonight, they weren’t going to have it tomorrow. But at other times she has to buy [processed food] when she knows . . . that it’s not necessarily the nutritious, best choice, but it’s her only choice.

One of the women in the film got a job and ended up worse off because she lost all of her assistance right away. How does that happen?

Colicchio: It’s actually known as the cliff effect. It’s an issue. The solution to that would be to gradually wean people off of public assistance as opposed to just cutting them off.

Silverbush: You have a young mother here who is going to work every day, getting her kids to school. She shouldn’t be worse off because she is doing those things. . . .  The majority of families that visit food pantries or are on food stamps have at least one working parent in the home, or one working adult in the house. It’s a cop, it’s a mom, it’s a rancher. These are people who are really truly doing their part to be active and productive members of society and we should be doing our part to give everybody the resources that they need to make it.
What is that part? What can people do?

Jacobson: There are many intractable problems in the world and in this country, but this is not one of them. . . . We’ve created a massive campaign around the film that we’ve been working on since before we started rolling on the first frame of film or digital media. When the film launches, so too will a campaign at www.takepart.com/place-at-the-table.

Silverbush: We have found that when we talk to congresspeople, they say if people in my district start letting me know they care about this, I’ll care about it. None of them are pro-hunger. None of them want to see kids hungry. But they don’t feel that it’s a priority to their electorate.

What do you hope the film is going to accomplish?

Colicchio: Start the conversation.. . . The average person looks at programs and food stamps, and it’s fine, it’s adequate. But the problem is that the current system, the way it’s funded, it allows people to stay alive, but it doesn’t necessarily allow people to thrive. And that’s really important because if you look at it, 17 million children are suffering, and you look at it’s 1 in 2 [people] that will at some point have to use food assistance. What kind of future are you looking at?

“A Place at the Table” opens Friday in theaters and will be available on iTunes and On Demand at the same time.

Mari-Jane Williams covers parenting and family issues for Local Living and schools for the Prince William and Loudoun Extras.
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