Hungry in America: Documentary Exposes the Growing Problem of Starvation Amid Plenty

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Magnolia Pictures
Magnolia Pictures

The film, A Place At The Table, sheds light on an issue many Americans are too ashamed to admit: they’re hungry.


Produced by Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio and directed by his wife and filmmaker Lori Silverbush, the documentary, which is in theaters and available on iTunes on March 1, focuses on the 50 million Americans, including one in four children, who can’t get enough to eat every day.

The film explores some of the factors contributing to the high prevalence of hunger in the U.S., including poverty, inadequate food assistance programs, and the high cost of healthy food. The film follows several characters, including a single mom trying to feed her kids more than canned spaghetti at every meal, and a fifth-grader who can’t concentrate in school because of hunger pangs.

(MORE: Salt Sugar Fat: Q&A With Author Michael Moss)

About 44 million Americans rely on the government’s food assistance plan, or Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), which provides less than $5 per person, per day on average. That’s hardly enough, especially for growing children.

“I think if you ask people, ‘Who’s on food stamps?’ they’d say, ‘People who are out of work and lazy.’ It’s people who work. That’s why I think it’s really important that we increase the minimum wage, because hunger is an issue of poverty,” Colicchio told TakePart.

And if families that are surviving below the poverty line are able to eat, they often aren’t eating well. It’s hard, if not impossible, to buy healthy foods, which often cost more than processed foods, which is one of the many factors New York Times journalist Michael Moss blames for Americans’ addiction to processed food in his new book Salt Sugar Fat. In an interview with TIME, Moss says:

One of the key things for moving forward is that the playing field needs to be leveled in terms of pricing. We all know we should be eating more fresh vegetables and fresh fruits. When you hit that part of the store and you see that blueberries cost $5 for a little basket and you can wheel over to the center of the store and see all these power bars and seemingly healthy things that are in fact loaded with salt, sugar and fat and they are half the price or a third the price, and there are all these other things that can fill up your cart for much less money. That’s a really difficult thing for families to deal with. Everyone is convinced that the government subsidies that support processed food need to be shifted over in some way to fresh fruits and vegetables or it’s going to continue to be hard for even people who want to eat better to do so financially.

That’s a point that Colicchio and Silverbush also make in the documentary. If parents are feeding their children unhealthy foods, it’s because these are the foods that they can afford. Prices, not food scarcity, are a driving factor in what’s purchased at check-out. “It’s easy to demonize parents for making bad choices and feeding their kids fast food with empty calories and lots of fat and no nutrition and sugary drinks,” Colicchio told TakePart. “But if that stuff is cheap and you have no money, the difference between being hungry and crying all night long or putting soda in them—what choice do you have?”

(MORE: Can “Pop-Up” Grocery Stores Solve the Problem of Food Deserts?)

Lack of access also deters healthy eating; with so little to spend on groceries, many families are forced to buy the unhealthy options that fill the shelves at the corner store instead of spending the time and money to seek out fresh foods at grocery stores, which are harder to find in many low-income communities. Such “food deserts” are common in both rural and urban communities where business owners have decided it’s too costly to carry and re-stock nutritious fare. Ree Harris, a mother of four boys in Mississippi who is featured in the documentary, says in the film: “Chips and ice cream and cakes, they have that here. They have lots and lots of stuff like that here. And so that’s why I go to Clarksdale sometime for grocery shopping, or Batesville, about a 45-minute drive. Those that doesn’t have transportation, it’s hard.”

Greater awareness of the prevalence of food deserts, however, spurred grassroots campaigns to bring healthier foods to low-income areas. Some groups have even adopted a “pop-up” or mobile model to provide food to these areas. In July, TIME wrote:

In 2009, the USDA mapped out the nation’s food deserts, tracts that are home to some 23 million Americans. About 10% of the 65,000 census tracts in the U.S. are considered food deserts. Data show that people living in these neighborhoods have limited access to a healthy diet, which can therefore lead to higher levels of obesity and other weight-related illnesses, such as diabetes and heart disease. So, can pop-up markets solve the food desert problem? Maybe.

The movement first got going in 2003, when a Bay Area group introduced organic food to West Oakland neighborhoods in a roaming solar-powered, biodiesel-burning food truck. Over the years, the mobile market idea gained steam. In June 2011, Fresh Moves, a Chicago non-profit launched its one-aisle grocery store on board a donated Chicago Transit Authority bus, and currently serves Chicago’s West Side neighborhoods. This August, the Seattle-based group Stockbox Grocers will launch its first store in the city’s South Park neighborhood, serving healthy food and to-go meals out of reclaimed shipping containers and storefronts. Residents of Portland, Ore., Kansas City and Baton Rouge are also seeing groceries-on-the-go rolling through this summer.

In the film, Colicchio and Silverbush also focus on ways to address hunger in America. Leveling prices and redistributing subsidies to help make healthier foods more affordable is one strategy they explore. “Our tax dollars are really going toward prop[ping] up fast food, and if some of that money was siphoned off of corn, wheat and soy subsidies and moved over to fresh fruits and vegetables, it could make a major difference,” Colicchio tells TakePart.

Such advocacy for the hungry may be leading to some solutions. Recently, Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan visited South Dakota State University to announce over $75 million in grants for research, education and projects to promote increased food security in the U.S. and globally. The grants were given to groups at 21 U.S. universities to identify ways to increase the availability of food and reduce the number of Americans who worry every day about where their next meal will come from.

The documentary is also a rallying cry for more action in addressing hunger in America. The filmmakers urge viewers to contact their House and Senate representatives, and provide more resources on their site.

Watch the A Place At The Table trailer here:

21 comments
punkakes13
punkakes13

everything is alright, ronald mcdonalds is gonna fix everythng

punkakes13
punkakes13

mc donalds cheddar chees polus coke and frenchy fries and breakd fast for under 5

lemieuxm
lemieuxm

$5 per day would get you 5 double cheese burgers at McD's which is north of 2,000 calories....   unhealthy, most definitely, but not starving.

Is there a way to setup SNAP to adjust the amount of money available depending on what its being spent on?  For instance, could we give everyone $5 per day to spend on whatever they want plus $10 per day which can only be spent on fruits or vegetables?  Also, could we make it so that brand name items (i.e. Cheerios) where a cheaper store brand is available (i.e. toasted oat circles, or whatever the store brand calls their version of Cheerios) cannot be purchase with taxpayer funds?

RonKlabunde
RonKlabunde

@generosityfeeds is mobilizing thousands of people to create meals for children in their communities who struggle with hunger. Anyone can get involved in this great opportunity! www.generosityfeeds.org

RichyBocaz
RichyBocaz

Hungry in USA? WRONG. America is a continent which belongs not to just one country but many.

JennyEm
JennyEm

@RichyBocaz Actually NORTH America is a continent, the USA is a single country that is included on the continent.

Doubtom
Doubtom

44% are hungry--gosh, that's almost the same number (47%) as Mutt Romnuts claimed were freeloaders on the economy!  Maybe he was confused,,,wouldn't be the first presidential aspirant to be confused; look at IdiotBush, he was totally confused for eight straight years!!  One thing neither IdiotBush nor Romnuts is confused about is that they're not the ones going hungry.  

bellaluna
bellaluna

There has been a decided shift in food prices over the past 20 years:  Families in poverty used to be able to purchase chicken or ground turkey or fish and fresh veggies & fruit (and brown rice/grains) for very little.  Beef used to be the "expensive" meat.

Now, what with all the health kicks, etc...chicken and ground turkey are exorbitantly expensive; whole grains have become a "thing;" and fruits and veg are over-priced, too.  That leaves the garbage foods.

Madhamish
Madhamish like.author.displayName 1 Like

This situation doesn't only affect the USA. In the UK people struggle all the time to feed their families and themselves.  The Jobseekers allowance is around £70 per week and out of that has to come local taxes (council tax at a reduced rate), TV licence, utility usage (gas and power) and internet and phone access. Then we're supposed to get our "Five a day", Decent food costs and it's cheaper and more filling to buy junk. This I'm sure leads to a population that is less intelligent and overweight, a way of keeping the "plebes" in their place.

punkakes13
punkakes13

@Madhamish this make sme depressed.. cause.. why dont u say like this

"hey, they just like junky foodies

SomewhereOverTheRainbow
SomewhereOverTheRainbow like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

What is all the hype about Americians going hungry? Americians have it good. They dont know hunger like other countries have. The main problem from my viewpoint is ignorance. If on a limited budget fix beans and rice dishes. Eggs and peanut butter are cheap still. Many dont know how or what to cook to feed themselves then cry poverty. I see kids at lunch in school, most have junk in their lunch boxes. One example of menu choices made. Other things I see-Go to a grocery store on food stamp day and see all the crap people buy. I know better choices could be made even when on a budget. I had to feed a family of 4 on $25. 00 a week in 1960, it was a big challange but I went to the library and checked out a few books on budbet cooking and did it. We were not fat, diabetic, our blood work was good with no anemia or low protien count and my kids were not spoiled on junk food. I learned how to manage with very little and I feel most lare spoiled, they lack the dicipline to help themselves.- signed poor but not ignorant.   

onemind
onemind like.author.displayName 1 Like

The posts on this article confirm what the article says about lack of care or understanding about the poor's difficulty in buying adequate quality and quality of food. Live on "organic brown rice" they are saying. I suggest you cut your self to $8 per child per week and buy for your self and four children. See how much in  vegetables, fruit, and meat  you can buy. My wife and I are well off, eat healthy on such food and spend over $200 a week for just us two. The price of food is sky high where we live in Ky. The lower income people eat an abundance of white potatoes and other high carb cheap high calorie foods because they must. That is why you see the poor who have little money yet are still over weight. Too bad they are not gay or illegal immigrants, only then might the poor children gain some sympathy from the "progressives" as they like to call  themselves these days.

SSK
SSK like.author.displayName 1 Like

To all those who are truly "starving" in the US you have my deepest sympathies and I agree this is a problem. That being said, I have no sympathy for anyone who just cant buy organic blueberries. $5 a day can buy healthy foods such as oatmeal, frozen veggies and organic brown rice aplenty so the notion that people on food stamps are "starving" is insulting to those in this world that are actually starving ie they are DYING due to lack of food. I do agree with cutting food subsidies though, that is a good idea. Those are my two cynical two cents.

TrueBeliever
TrueBeliever

I was madly in love with a woman named Mary in Mukilteo who was a secret "foodie" and thank god she dumped me becuase now she is 60 pounds overwieght and living with a real jerk.  Food can destroy relationships.  Food is an equal opportunity "killer" when people cannot stop eating and they get food related illnesses like diabetes.

jerry48
jerry48 like.author.displayName 1 Like

" “I think if you ask people, ‘Who’s on food stamps?’ they’d say, ‘People who are out of work and LAZY " Changing this mentality is the first step for solving the problem !


splash
splash

why would u compare the price of blueberries, among the most expensive foods, to junk foods? Bananas  bags of apples and oranges are a whole lot cheaper. Also whole wheat pasta, and frozen veggies are cheap options. Its not accurate that the cheapest foods are always the most unhealthy

SSK
SSK

@splash I agree. You can buy a whole bag of organic brown rice for $13 that would feed a family for a week, you can buy oatmeal (plain) for dirt cheap. The real issue is the stuff doesnt taste good. On another note- since when do citizens of the US have a right to eat healthy? Nobody really "starves" on $5 per day...how is the government going to afford to pay for each of its citizens to eat organic blueberries everyday? I DO agree with the subsidy analysis though.

BobJan
BobJan like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

@splash It would make a greater impact if the people receiving food stamps were taught about what your talking about. Some people on assistance don't have a clue about wheat pasta or steel cut oats and how these foods keep you healthier and go through you more slowly. Education is the key. It would solve a lot of problems. Another way would be to set up government food banks with people assisting recipients with their intake of food for the size of their family. Our gov't must become more efficient and the only way that will happen is to elect people with different skills. ie, engineers, doctors, scientists. No more Lawyers.

TrueBeliever
TrueBeliever

@splash Blue berries are unusual because they are loaded with Omega-3 and help to ward off Cancer.  If you are a smoker, eat lots of blueberies.