In A Place at the Table, a doctor in a mobile clinic in Mississippi asks Tremonica, in the second grade and already obese, what she ate for breakfast that morning.
"Nothing," Tremonica replies.
"What snacks do you eat?" the doctor queries.
"What do you drink?"
"Maybe ask your mom to start buying celery, carrots and apples."
If only it were that easy. Junk food is cheap. A 2-liter bottle of Coke costs $1; a half-gallon of milk is $1.77. When your food stamp ration is $3 per day per person, milk adds up. Financially, Coke makes sense.
But from a public health standpoint, junk food is equivalent to a natural disaster. The United States is a nation of malnourished, hungry, yet obese people. Because of America's failed federal food policy, our amber waves of subsidized grain are used to make cheap processed foods, whose alluring packaging compels us to toss a bag of Lay's in the shopping cart. Meanwhile, without the crutch of federal money, pears, broccoli and leafy greens from the fruited plain are beyond the financial reach of the poor.
A Place at the Table uses the typical tools of advocacy to stoke the outrage: shocking statistics, scholarly experts, desperate families and star power, including Jeff Bridges and Top Chef Tom Colicchio. Yet, while the film excels at tracing the cause and effects of our failed food policy, it misplaces part of the solution. Sure, Congress must fully fund childhood nutrition initiatives, restore money to the food stamp program and reimburse public schools for lunches more than $2.68 a meal, but local initiatives are equally important—and more achievable.
The families are the lens through which we see the most dire consequences of U.S. food policy: Among them, Rosie, who lives with her parents and grandparents in rural Colorado, Barbie Izquierdo, a mother of two who is navigating the byzantine system of food stamp benefits in Philadelphia; and Tremonica, her mother and brother, who reside in Mississippi.
Rosie's school performance suffers because she is hungry. She envisions her fifth-grade teacher as a banana, her classmates as apples and oranges. "We've been without vegetables for a while," her mother, Trish, says. "We've run out of milk."
After spending nearly eight hours at her local health and human services department, Izquierdo learns that she earns $2 over the income threshold to qualify for food stamps—benefits that are supposed to provide nutritious food for her family at just $3 per person per day. When she finally becomes eligible, the monthly benefits last just three weeks. "That last week I'm going crazy," she says.
Tremonica's mother is worried about her daughter's weight and health: "If fruit's on sale, I get it." But cookies, which fill plastic containers in the home, are cheaper.
Hunger and obesity are neighbors, Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved, says in the film. "They're both signs there are insufficient funds to buy the food they need to stay healthy."
By the late 1970s, social programs had nearly eliminated hunger in the U.S. Only 14 percent of Americans were considered obese. Then came Ronald Reagan. Subsidies to the politically powerful agribusiness sector enabled the price of processed food to drop by 40 percent; meanwhile, the cost of produce increased the same amount.
Thirty-five years later, processed food is even cheaper. More than a third of U.S. adults and 17 percent of children are now considered obese.
With a running time of 84 minutes, A Place at the Table would have benefited from some trimming. The film's pace gets bogged down when activists and families arrive in Washington for congressional hearings and meetings. The time may have been better spent empowering local communities.
Food sovereignty, a term common among activists, means taking ownership of your food. Neighborhoods, nonprofits and faith-based groups can plant and maintain community gardens, such as the one at Kent and Chapel Hill streets in Durham. (Coincidentally, the lot is being eyed for a new locally owned market.)
Mobile farmers markets, such as LoMo Market, which tours the Triangle, can help people without cars to more efficiently access their food. Low-interest loans can spur entrepreneurs to open small grocery stores in food deserts—such as Southeast Raleigh, where two Krogers recently closed.
Are these perfect solutions? No. Raleigh zoning ordinances have hampered the urban garden movement in that city. The TROSA grocery in East Durham failed because its prices could not compete with Walmart's. Nonetheless, as the film points out, America is in crisis. To solve it, I'd rather work with my neighbors than lawmakers.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Hunger games."