The multi-faceted problem of hunger in America, where around 50 million people are categorized as “food insecure”—a term for those who don’t know when/where/if their next meal is coming—rarely gets discussed explicitly in political circles, aside from debates over the value of food stamps and school lunch programs. For that reason alone, Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush’s activist documentary A Place At The Table has some value and may inspire some sympathetic viewers to pay keener attention to the issue. Yet as a piece of agitprop, it’s awfully thin gruel, a graceless info-dump bracketed by interviews with activists and a handful of personal stories from suffering families around the country. It makes a persuasive argument—which it makes easier by not allowing any counterargument—but it’s unpersuasive as a piece of filmmaking. In laying out its case, it’s manipulative and dull by turns.
Jacobson and Silverbush dive into the practical and political restrictions keeping many millions from nutritious meals, and draw a firm, important connection between the rise in hunger and obesity that may sound counterintuitive. The billions in farm subsidies shuffled into agribusiness have driven down the cost of unhealthy junk foods, while fresh fruits and vegetables have become not only unaffordable to many, but often unavailable. Many families, particularly in poor urban environments, live in “food deserts,” where fruits and vegetables aren’t an option, and when they can afford to eat, government benefits like food stamps can’t be stretched very far. The tragedy of American hunger now, according to the film, is that it wasn’t a problem until the ’80s, when social programs were slashed for tax cuts and increased defense spending, and that it remains solvable if America has the political will to get it done.
A Place At The Table brings out recognizable faces like Jeff Bridges and Tom Colicchio to support its position, and leans heavily on anecdotal cases like a rural girl whose inconsistent diet leads to problems concentrating in school, or a single mother in Philadelphia whose ambitions are checked by the reality of feeding her children their next meal. These stories tug at the heart and conscience, but they do so indelicately, with the intent to hammer every bullet point home with some human example. It may be effective, and it’s unquestionably in support of a worthy fight, but as a documentary, it doesn’t search for truth so much as programs it.