A Place at the Table, a new documentary on hunger in the U.S., opens with luscious images of America’s heartland: Wide pans of rolling hills, close-ups of cherries, apples and wheat. The film makes the distinct argument that the nation is hungry, but not for lack of food.
“Is it that people are going hungry because of a shortage of food?” Raj Patel, the author of Stuffed and Starved, asks the camera. “No, it is not. The reason people are going hungry is not because of a shortage of food, it is because of poverty.”
Patel’s seemingly oxymoronic book title encapsulates an important part of the argument put forth in the film, directed by Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush.
In the U.S., 50 million people are food insecure, which means they don’t know where their next meal will come from. Hunger in America is often hidden from view, because many hungry people don’t look how our collective imagination expects.
“I think when people hear the term ‘hunger,’ they still imagine a skinny, undernourished human being — they see the pictures of famine victims from sub-Saharan Africa,” Janet Poppendieck, author of Sweet Charity?, says in the film.
In fact, many food insecure Americans are obese, in large part because of what food is available and affordable. Food subsidies favor corn, soy, wheat and grains used in processed, fatty foods. Less than 1 percent of subsidies, which along with supply and demand determine consumer choices, go toward fruits and vegetables.
Furthermore, getting healthy foods into consumers’ hands is not always easy, with rising transportation costs and the problem of spoiling (though some cities have implemented programs to bring fruits and vegetables to corner stores and to distribute boxes of produce through community anchors, like local hospitals). And while the film didn’t raise this issue, a recent detailed account of the precise chemistry of junk food in the New York Times Magazine raises important questions about food addiction and the influences on customer food choices.
In Philadelphia, a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line and two-thirds of the city’s residents are overweight or obese. The city features prominently in A Place at the Table, with North Philly resident Barbie Izquierdo, a 25-year-old mother of two, serving as the primary face of urban food insecurity. The film follows her as she chews bland sandwiches and her kids eat canned pasta, and as she navigates cramped corner stores where her son cries for donuts. Other vignettes highlight rural hunger in Colorado and the links between obesity and food insecurity in Mississippi.
Izquierdo struggles to feed her kids and bounces on and off government food assistance depending on her job status. She recounts losing her food assistance when she started making $9 per hour, because she was $2 over the limit. When she found a full-time job working at a hunger hotline, she continued to struggle to feed her kids.
In his State of the Union address last month, President Obama highlighted the unlivable minimum wage in the U.S. “A family with two kids that earns the minimum wage still lives below the poverty line,” Obama said before he suggested raising the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour.
Yet Izquierdo struggled to feed her children even when she had a $9-an-hour job. As Patel explains:
You’re not asking, “why is there insufficient food,” which is this sort of very beneficent question, but it turns out to be “why are people poor?” And right there you’re in a political question and one that’s far more difficult to answer and involves asking questions about power and about class and about inequality and the persistent inequality in this country. And that’s a much harder question to ask than the question about “well, is there enough food in America?” to which clearly the answer is yes.
These questions are central to next week’s Feeding Cities conference in Philadelphia, hosted by the Penn Institute for Urban Research, which aims to tackle what the conference website calls the “fundamental challenge of our modern age: How to provide a sustainable, nutritious and affordable diet to the world’s burgeoning urban populous.”
Or as Izquierdo puts it, “I’m struggling so much every day to be able to even feed my kids every day. So its really hard to make that decision now, I can’t tell my kids ‘OK, I’m going to school so in two years, we’re gonna be fine.’ I can’t tell them, ‘Yeah I’ll make sure you guys eat in two years.’”
Allyn Gaestel is currently a Philadelphia Fellow for Next City. Much of her work centers on human rights, inequality and gender. She has worked in Haiti, India, Nepal, Mali, Senegal, Democratic Republic of Congo and the Bahamas for outlets including the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Los Angeles Times, Reuters, CNN and Al Jazeera. She tweets @allyngaestel.