“A Place at the Table”: The face of hunger in America

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“A Place at the Table” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. PG, 1:24. I’ll be doing a post-show chat about the film after the showing at 7:05 p.m. Tuesday, March 5.

“If another country was doing this to our kids, we’d be at war.”

Jeff Bridges says that in “A Place at the Table,” and it’s an interesting point. Imagine if North Korea developed some kind of biological weapon and dumped it in our drinking supply. Imagine it didn’t kill people — not right away — but instead made then more prone to developing lifelong illnesses, including one in three American children contracting Type 2 diabetes, exploding the cost of health care. Imagine it made children feel so sick that they couldn’t concentrate in school, leading to lower grades and dimmer futures. Imagine it made the population so unhealthy that only 1 in 4 Americans between the ages of 19 and 25 were physically fit enough to serve in the military, weakening the armed forces.

The “biological weapon,” of course, is hunger, and its cousin obesity. Filmmakers Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush tackle a complex and seemingly intractable problem with every weapon at a skilled documentarian’s disposal. They present an array of sobering data, such as the fact that 51 million Americans don’t get enough to eat, but wrap that information around the personal stories of three very different members of that 51 million.

The film opens with beautiful shots of western Colorado — snow-capped peaks, verdant forests, rolling fields — as a song by T Bone Burnett and the Civil Wars plays on the soundtrack. It presents America as the land of plenty — surely hunger can’t exist in a country with so much bounty? But in fact it does; living right in the middle of all that natural beauty is Rosie, a Colorado teenager whose family lives hand-to-mouth, depending on charity from neighbors and the local food bank for meals each day. Poverty seems rampant in her picturesque little town; the local pastor’s food pantry is crowded with needy people, and we meet one father who works two eight-hour shifts a day — one as a cattle rancher, the other as a school janitor — and still has to use it.

The other two people are a Mississippi second-grader whose health problems are worsening because her mother can only afford processed foods, and a Philadelphia single mother living right at the edge of eligibility for food stamps. We see her get a good full-time job, which would be the triumphant finale of most documentaries. But the slightly higher salary means she loses her food stamps, and her children ended up eating worse than they did when she was classified as poor.

It’s a difficult, complex problem, one that can’t be solved by just donating a few cans of food to the local pantry. (Although, by all means, do that.) Jacobson and Silverbush show how addressing hunger needs a comprehensive, systematic approach at the federal government level, including an expansion not just of social programs but a look at agriculture policy, which subsidizes corporate crops like soybeans and inedible corn used for high-fructose corn syrup to the tune of $20 billion a year, but not fruits and vegetables. The result is a growing population that doesn’t have enough to eat, and can only afford the cheap calories that junk food provides.

And, somehow, there needs to be an honest conversation in the culture about American poverty, once and for all dispelling the grotesque misconception that those on welfare are living high on the hog on the taxpayers’ dime. Watching “A Place at the Table” is a good place to start that conversation.

Come talk about movies with me at Sundance Cinemas next week!

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So this is pretty exciting. I’m partnering with the nice folks at Sundance Cinemas for “Conversations in Film,” an occasional series where I will host special screenings of films from their Screening Room calendar, the series devoted to indie films, foreign films and documentaries. After each film, join me up in the second-floor lounge at Sundance, 430 N. Midvale Blvd.,  for a lively discussion of the movie we all just saw.

The first one takes place on Tuesday, March 5 at 7:05 p.m., and the movie we picked to start off the series should be an ideal conversation-starter. It’s the documentary “A Place at the Table,” which looks at how, in the land of plenty and the home of the super-sized milkshake, 49 million Americans don’t get enough to eat. It’s a beautiful film as well as an insightful one, and one that I think will change a lot of people’s perceptions of what poverty is.

The usual ticket prices apply, although the nice thing about the Screening Room Calendar is that its exempt from the usual amenities fees at the theater. I’ve got one other “conversation” scheduled on Tuesday, March 26, for the drama “Any Day Now,” starring Alan Cumming and Garret Dillahunt. And we plan to do more as the Screening Room calendar continues. Hope to see you there!