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

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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: