One nation underfed. Really?
Many of us don't think of the U.S. as the land of the underfed.
In this era of the expanding waistlines, we hear far more concern about obesity than we do about hunger. But the two are more closely connected that many of us realize.
A new documentary, A Place at the Table, peels back the curtain on the problem of food insecurity, weaving together the stories of low-income Americans who struggle to put healthy food on the table, despite the fact that they have jobs.
As we've reported, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that about about 50 million Americans fall into this category of "food insecure" — meaning they don't always have the resources to buy the food they need. This includes nearly 17 million children in the U.S.
I attended a screening of the film - along with a panel discussion with the producers and folks from Participant Media (the people behind Food Inc.). Judging from the reaction of the audience, the film works. At a gut level, the story of Barbie, a single mom from Philly who grew up in poverty, is wrenching.
As Barbie tries to break the cycle, she finds at times that she makes too much money to qualify for federal food assistance. And her paycheck runs out long before the end of the month.
As we watch her open cans of cheap pasta, and peer into her nearly empty fridge, our hearts leap.
The film includes the voices of hunger and nutrition experts, as well as advocates who criticize federal farm subsidies of crops such as wheat and corn. These crops supply the bulk of our nation's processed foods, which tend to be calorie dense, and nutrient poor.
Food policy expert Marion Nestle points out there are no subsidies for fruits and vegetables — one reason, perhaps, that they're so much more expensive. Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved, weighs in, too.
But as producer Lori Silverbush (married to chef Tom Colicchio, who appears in the film) pointed out during the after-screening discussion, subsidies are just one part of a complex story.
The bottom line, according to hunger advocate Billy Shore of Share Our Strength: "Childhood hunger in this nation is a solvable problem." Shore says we have enough food and good nutrition programs.
"What we need is to make sure the kids who need the food are able to access the programs," Shore says.
Participant Media, which helped embolden the food movement with Food, Inc., is hoping that the film serves another call to action.
They've launched a website that will serve as a hub for for all sorts of hunger-related advocacy. And groups including Bread for the World, Feeding America, FRAC and Share Our Strength are all represented.
And getting back to that idea that hunger and obesity live in close quarters, I think Michael O'Sullivan of the Washington Post summed it up best in a review of the documentary:
"The problem, as Table shows, isn't that the next meal never comes," O'Sullivan writes. It's that when it arrives, too often it is filled with empty calories."