In 1968, CBS aired a documentary, Hunger in America, that remains one of the clearest examples of television’s power to effect change in society. The collective shock and outrage voiced by Americans following the broadcast galvanized the federal government to enact legislation, led by Sens. Bob Dole and George McGovern, to eliminate malnutrition. And by the end of the 1970s, the data showed that the food safety net programs seemed to have worked, all but eradicating the issue of hunger in America.
Flash forward three decades, and a worthy successor to Hunger in America is about to show that this basic right once again needs to be addressed. In fact, one of the first pieces of information that the new documentary, A Place at the Table, provides is that 50 million Americans — including one in four children — don’t know where their next meal is coming from.
The directors, Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush, came to their subject through first-person experience. Silverbush and her husband were mentoring a young girl in New York City who was struggling in school with both academic and behavioral issues. One day, Silverbush received a call from the school telling her that the girl had been discovered foraging in the school’s trash cans for food.
Jacobson says that she and Silverbush knew immediately that this was a story that had to be told, but, she says, “We had to do it in a way that hadn’t been done before. People were going to events that raised money for hunger, but no one was asking the question, ‘Why?’ We had to look at the ‘Why.’ ”
To do that, the pair drew on Silverbush’s background in narrative film and Jacobson’s years of working with legendary documentarian, Barbara Kopple, who taught her that “you can go in having some kind of idea, but to let the story guide you.
“The way to reach people through film is with personal stories that move you,” Jacobson continues. “But without context, it wouldn’t be enough.”
Accordingly, A Place at the Table has no shortage of talking heads like Hunter College sociologist Janet Poppendieck, author/activist Raj Patel (Stuffed and Starved) and the leading authority on food politics, Marion Nestle. Real star power is provided by Top Chef’s Tom Colicchio (who held fundraisers for the film at his New York restaurants) and Academy Award-winning actor, Jeff Bridges, a longtime activist for ending childhood hunger.
What gives the film its immediacy and impact, though, is its unwavering focus on telling the stories of three families who deal with hunger on a daily basis: Rosie, a Colorado fifth-grader who is so frequently hungry that she can’t focus in school and who speaks matter of factly about the days when her family has nothing to eat; Tremonica, a second-grader in Mississippi who must deal with asthma and other health issues while subsisting on hyper-caloric, nutritionally deficient food — the only way her mother can afford to feed her; and Barbie, a single mother in North Philadelphia who starves herself as she tries to break the cycle of poverty and hunger for her two small children.
Jacobson says that once she and Silverbush decided to try to make the documentary, their first stop was Philadelphia. They had read an article about Drexel University professor Mariana Chilton and her work on Witnesses to Hunger, a project to empower the mothers and caregivers of young children who have experienced hunger and poverty. “We met Barbie through Dr. Chilton,” Jacobson says. “In fact, a lot of our understanding about the lifelong impact of hunger on kids came from attending Witnesses to Hunger meetings.”
Jacobson says that her desire to bring about a reimagining of the food safety net stems in no small part from her Judaism. “It fuels who I am as a person and a filmmaker — the issue of hunger is addressed so specifically in the Bible, for example. I keep getting pulled in this direction — there are a lot of invisible people in this country, and if I can do something to make them visible, I will.”
A Place at the Table opens March 1 at Ritz at the Bourse, 215-925-7900.