During the 1960s, political and social concerns over the extent of hunger and nutritional problems in the United States greatly increased. This led the White House to convene the Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health in December of 1969, which sought to introduce recommendations for improving America’s nutritional status. This seminal conference resulted in several outcomes. One was the significant reformation and expansion of the Food Stamp Program, which had been in effect since May of 1939. Another was the creation of school breakfast programs and the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). Another still was a comprehensive food assistance network, which was developed by both Democratic and Republican administrations as a way to rescue those who slipped through the cracks of the economic structure.
From 1969 to 1979, the number of people participating in the Food Stamp Program increased from 2.8 million to 17.6 million. 11.7 million children received free and reduced-price lunches, an increase from 3.9 million, while 21 million children received free summer meals from a major national program that initially fed only 99,000. By 1979, around 4 million people benefited from the WIC, and 2.7 million children received free and reduced-price breakfasts. Hunger was never completely eradicated during this period, but it came pretty darn close. Then came the 1980s and the Reagan Administration, which reduced or completely eliminated long-standing social programs yet increased tax cuts and defense spending. Some of the casualties of Reaganomics were the nutritional programs, including food stamps. The reductions in social spending spurred an inevitable increase in poverty, inequality, and hunger.
Many of these facts are brought to our attention in A Place at the Table, a sobering documentary that sheds light on a domestic epidemic that so often gets overlooked. Although nutritional programs are currently in effect, including the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), factors such as the world food price crisis and the 2008 recession have seen to it that hunger remains a significant issue. According to Feedingamerica.org, 50.1 million Americans lived in food insecure households in 2011, 16.7 million of which were children. Seven states had higher food insecurity rates than the U.S. nation average of 14.7%. Take Mississippi; between 2009 and 2011, its rate was 19.2%. 5.1% of all American households accessed a food pantry one or more times, and 57.2% of food insecure households participated in at least one of the three major federal food assistance programs – SNAP, WIC, or the National School Lunch Program.
What this documentary does so effectively is show that numerous political and economic factors tie into hunger. We learn, for example, about agribusiness, which is the second biggest special interest behind oil; commodities such as wheat, feed grains, rice, sugar, and milk tend to be financed by agricultural subsidies, which are given to corporate farmers in exchange for influencing cost and supply. It’s no wonder, then, that the relative price for fruits and vegetables has gone up around 40% since 1980, while the relative price of processed foods has gone down the same amount. We also learn about food deserts, a term that describes any city or town isolated from markets offering quality products like fruits and vegetables. Food deserts typically only have access to highly processed foods containing large amounts of fat, salt, and sugar. This, naturally, contributes to the obesity epidemic, which is, quite paradoxically, a telling sign of America’s food insecurity.
The film interviews a number of political and social figureheads in the anti-hunger movement, including Raj Patel, Marion Nestle, Joel Berg, James McGovern, and most notably, Jeff Bridges, who in 2010 became the spokesperson for No Kid Hungry Campaign and supports Barack Obama’s initiative to end childhood hunger by 2015. Their contributions are insightful, but the film is at its best when the focus shifts to everyday people struggling with hunger. We meet, for example, a fifth-grader named Rosie, who lives with her family in the financially-struggling small town of Colburn, Colorado. She dreams that the team from Extreme Makeover: Home Edition will rebuild her house. Her teacher, who donates regularly to the local church-run food bank, strongly suspected that hunger was the reason why she struggled in class.
The most featured, and most compelling, interviewee in A Place at the Table is Barbie, a single mother of two young children in Philadelphia. Her son is developmentally disabled and has an autoimmune disorder. Financially strapped, she got by as best she could on government assistance, specifically food stamps. There comes a point at which she secures a new job – as, of all things, a phone operator for a company that distributes food stamps to those in need. We see her as she walks to work on her first day. There’s a spring in her step and a smile on her face. She looks and sounds energized. Her happiness is short lived, as some months later, we learn that Barbie’s new job pushed her annual income two dollars over the limit to qualify for food stamps, which she cannot afford to live without. Charles Kuralt observed in 1968 that the most basic human need must become a human right; stories like Barbie’s prove that this is just as true today as it was back then.
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