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A Place at the Table

The cinematography is fabulous and the original music by Civil Wars is excellent, but the core strength of A Place at the Table is the struggling parents and children whose stories compose this portrait of hunger in America, circa 2013.

It’s not like the hunger of 40 years ago, when the federal government stepped in and put an end to it. Today’s hunger, back with a vengeance, is masked but insidious. It’s still rooted in poverty, but instead of scrawny, starving victims, it produces hungry, obese children and diabetic adults.

As A Place at the Table makes evident, modern hunger is different. It’s what you get when subsidies established long ago to help family farmers take on new purpose under the tutelage of agribusiness lobbyists and Congressional allies. Today, more than $20 billion in agricultural subsidies flow to corporate farming. They depress the cost of grain (especially corn), artificially driving the cost of processed food way below the cost of fresh, wholesome food.

The net effect is that poor families in America can buy food but not very much healthy food. In place of fruit, vegetables, whole grains and proteins, their diets are stacked high with cheap, processed food – filled with sugar, salt and fat – that provides a quick sensation of satiation with little nutritional benefit. Indeed, a steady diet of processed food virtually guarantees a lifetime of obesity and chronic disease.

A Place at the Table – by the directors of Food, Inc. – leaves no room to blame the poor for their poor food choices. Through its moving interviews of parents and children, the documentary shows that poverty leaves you with limited choice. It means eating on $30 a week (a challenge that has recently been taken up by a number of hunger activists, including Newark (NJ) Mayor Cory Booker). It means straining in school on an empty stomach. It means running low on food and skipping meals at the end of each month. And in many rural and urban “food deserts,” fresh, healthy food isn’t even a choice because no local stores even stock it.

The frustrating fact, as actor Jeff Bridges points out, is that America banished hunger in the early 1970s, only to allow its return in the budget-cutting austerity of the 1980s. True, churches and charities have nurtured a private pantry system that supplements food stamps, but these efforts, which do not fully fill the gap, also rely on unhealthy, prepackaged, processed food.

To this reviewer, the key link in straightening out this mess appears to be the agricultural subsidy. It needs to be taken from corporate grain production and refocused to reduce fruit and vegetable prices. As the price of healthy food declines (and processed food rises), diets will improve, and it will become evident what amount of food stamp support is actually necessary to enable poor families to eat healthily.

Of course, agribiz will fight that kind of subsidy realignment, but reality bites hard. Sooner or later, the soaring cost of ensuring health care for generations of young Americans who are increasingly obese and diabetic will likely force a re-examination of the subsidy program.

In the meantime, A Place at the Table is an easy, enjoyable way to enlighten oneself and gather the facts necessary to persuade others. Healthy food security is a fundamental necessity of modern life. As A Place at the Table makes clear, it’s one the U.S. can rather cheaply address. And it’s been done before. There’s no excuse for further delay.

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