A Place at the Table: A Serving of Hard-to-Swallow Truths

From the company that made 'Food, Inc.,' an examination of how — and why — 50 million American men, women, and children go to bed sick and hungry

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Magnolia Pictures

One of the more memorable scenes in Participant Media’s 2008 documentary Food Inc. involved the simple act of a family shopping in the fruit-and-vegetable aisle at the supermarket. They have diabetes medications to pay for, so their budget is tight. Broccoli and potatoes are better for them than fast food, but as they gauge the cost of those items, the burgers, fries and soda prove cheaper. And so goes the unfortunately typical American nutritional cycle: poor diet, declining health, less money to spend on better food. Food Inc. had a lot of other outrages to uncover, including meat production, corn subsidies, the struggles of small farmers, and the oppressive practices of corporate seed manufacturers, but Participant Media’s earnest new documentary A Place at the Table, a true companion piece to Food Inc., takes a closer look at the issues that faced that family. Issues that affect them and the vast segment of the populationan estimated 50 million men, women, and childrendescribed by policy makers and advocates as “food insecure.”

The term “food insecure” is widely used, but what a lousy term for hungry, with its whiff of the clinical, and a phrasing that speaks to neurosis rather than the practical. I suppose it beats “meal-challenged.” The definition applies to anyone who at any time wonders where their next meal will come from. Directors Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush include interviews with an array of talking heads including celebrity chef Tom Colicchio, who is married to Silverbush; Mariana Chilton, the founder of Witnesses to Hunger; nutrition policy leader Marion Nestle; Dr. J. Larry Brown, author of Living Hungry in America; and Raj Patel, the author of Stuffed and Starved. Actor Jeff Bridges, the founder of the End Hunger Network, makes a passionate plea for awareness, imploring the audience to consider this an issue of patriotism (“How do you envision your country? Do you envision it a country where one in four of the kids are hungry?”). T Bone Burnett and The Civil Wars provide the soundtrack. It’s a classy, articulate and predictable group of concerned citizens.

(READ: Time’s review of Food, Inc.)

The clever, simple-to-read graphics present many of the same points made in Food Inc., such as the ruinous nature of farm subsidies that support corn and carbohydrates and, ultimately, the junk-food industry. But the best illustration of Jacobson and Silverbush’s case—that something has to be done to both raise the level of awareness of the problem and reverse a trend that has grown at a horrifying rate since the Reagan administration—are the ordinary people they profile who are suffering through the misery of regular hunger.

If I had a hand in editing the film, I’d have skipped the opening shots of pastoral America, the bucolic scenes meant to remind us of how beautiful the country is before diving below the surface. It’s 2013; we know things are in a terrible way. Why not cut right to fifth-grader Rosie, who lives in rural Colorado in a tiny house with her mother, sisters and grandparents? Together they have just enough income not to qualify for food stamps. The sweet-faced child describes being so hungry in school that she starts to imagine (or hallucinate) that her teacher is a banana. To look at the girl, one wouldn’t know she’s chronically hungry; she looks healthy. It’s her teacher at the local elementary school who puts two and two (lack of focus, frequent absences) together and tries to help. But most of the donated foods the family receives are carbohydrates, packaged and processed foods. As Rosie’s grandmother makes bread for the family she speaks ruefully of not being able to afford vegetables. The same is true for Tremonica, an obese second-grader in Mississippi who suffers from asthma.

Barbie Izquierdo, a single mother from Philadelphia, is the most brutally self-aware person in the film. Having grown up in poverty, she’s desperate to break the cycle (if her daughter and toddler son have a father, he’s certainly not helping). Jacobson and Silverbush follow Izquierdo as she becomes an activist herself and enjoys the triumph of landing a job (helping others in need as they struggle to understand government assistance). But they are also there three months later when Izquierdo is confronting the reality that the job pays just enough so that she is no longer eligible for day-care subsidies or food stamps, but not enough for her to feed her kids. “What am I going to do, give them a Hot Pocket for dinner tomorrow?” she says.

This young woman — proud and strong and ambitious — looks into her refrigerator, nearly bare only five days after the last paycheck and the tears start to flow. “It’s tiring,” she says. The movie is called A Place at the Table (it played at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival under the rather vague title Finding North) and it specifically addresses our country’s hunger crisis. But it also speaks to larger hungers. Hungers for independence, a dignified life, a better chance for ones children—in short, the American dream. See it and weep.

(READ: 10 Questions for Jeff Bridges)