A Place at the Table

A Place at the Table

Barbie and kids in A PLACE AT THE TABLE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

A Place at the Table (2012/2013)

Opened: 03/01/2013 Limited

Sunshine Cinema03/01/2013 - 03/21/201321 days
Kendall Square...03/01/2013 - 03/14/201314 days
The Nuart03/01/2013 - 03/07/20137 days
The Landmark03/08/2013 - 03/14/20137 days

Trailer: Click for trailer

Websites: Home, Facebook

Genre: Documentary

Rated: PG for thematic elements and brief mild language.

One Nation. Underfed.


50 million people in the U.S.--one in four children--don't know where their next meal is coming from, despite our having the means to provide nutritious, affordable food for all Americans. Directors Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush examine this issue through the lens of three people who are struggling with food insecurity: Barbie, a single Philadelphia mother who grew up in poverty and is trying to provide a better life for her two kids; Rosie, a Colorado fifth-grader who often has to depend on friends and neighbors to feed her and has trouble concentrating in school; and Tremonica, a Mississippi second-grader whose asthma and health issues are exacerbated by the largely empty calories her hardworking mother can afford.

Their stories are interwoven with insights from experts including sociologist Janet Poppendieck, author Raj Patel and nutrition policy leader Marion Nestle; ordinary citizens like Pastor Bob Wilson and teachers Leslie Nichols and Odessa Cherry; and activists such as Witness to Hunger's Mariana Chilton, Top Chef's Tom Colicchio and Oscar®-winning actor Jeff Bridges.

Ultimately, A Place at the Table shows us how hunger poses serious economic, social and cultural implications for our nation, and that it could be solved once and for all, if the American public decides--as they have in the past--that making healthy food available and affordable is in the best interest of us all.

About the Film

Hunger. It isn't just a problem for starving children in a distant third world country. It's a very real issue for many people here in the United States, the wealthiest nation in the world.

Despite having the means to provide nutritious, affordable food for all Americans, the U.S. allows nearly 50 million people to be food insecure, which means they don't know where their next meal is coming from.

If these statistics are shocking, it's because the stigma of hunger in our society has kept it hidden. Your neighbors, friends, coworkers could be food insecure and you would never know because people are too ashamed to talk about it.

How is it possible for a nation with so much food to have so much hunger?

Participant Media, the entertainment company responsible for such acclaimed documentaries as An Inconvenient Truth, Food, Inc. and Waiting for "Superman," turns its attention to the crisis of hunger in America today with A PLACE AT THE TABLE.

Director/Producers Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush examine this issue through the lens of three Americans who struggle daily with this issue, interwoven with insights from experts and the ordinary citizens and activists who are working to improve the lives of others.

Through this mosaic, the film reveals the serious economic, social and cultural implications hunger poses for our nation and the systemic issues that cause inequality of access to healthy food. Moreover, the film shows that this is a problem that America has solved in the past, and can solve again, if average Americans demand it.

Joining Jacobson (Toots) and Silverbush (On the Outs) as producers of the Catalyst Films/Silverbush Production are Julie Goldman (Buck) and Ryan Harrington, the Tribeca Film Institute's Director of Documentary Programming. The film's executive producers are Tom Colicchio (TV's Top Chef), Participant Media's Jeff Skoll and Diane Weyermann, and Christina Weiss Lurie and Jeffrey Lurie. Daniel B. Gold and Kirstin Johnson served as directors of photography, with Madeleine Gavin, Jean Tsien, A.C.E. and Andrea B. Scott as editors. The film's original music is by Grammy and Academy Award®-winner T Bone Burnett & the popular duo The Civil Wars, who recorded two songs for the film's soundtrack.

In A PLACE AT THE TABLE, we are introduced to three Americans:

Barbie, a Philadelphia single mom struggling to make ends meet for her two children. She swore that she would never feed her own kids canned spaghetti three times a day like she had growing up, but sometimes it is the best she can do.

Colorado fifth grader Rosie, who often has to depend on friends and neighbors to feed her, and has trouble concentrating in school because she's hungry.

Tremonica, a Mississippi second grader whose asthma and health issues are exacerbated by the largely empty calories in the foods her hardworking mother can afford.

Through each of these stories, Jacobson and Silverbush examine the key factors contributing to the hunger crisis in America, illustrating how our nation's food distribution system, social support programs and even well-meaning charitable organizations allow the cycle to continue. Barbie's story shows the inadequacy of our current governmental assistance plans such as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and school meal programs.

Dr. J. Larry Brown, a former chairman of the Physician Task Force on Hunger in America, Joel Berg, head of New York City Coalition Against Hunger, and Academy Award winning actor and longtime hunger activist Jeff Bridges provide historical perspective on the situation.

They explain how food-insecurity in the U.S. had nearly been wiped out by smart policies and effective programs in the late 1970's until the economic woes of the early 1980s prompted the newly-elected Reagan administration to cut taxes and sharply slash social programs, just as the need for assistance was growing. This resulted in millions of hungry Americans, and their numbers have swelled over the decades.

Rejecting any notion of food scarcity as a legitimate reason for this crisis, economist/author Raj Patel believes that the real cause of hunger is poverty. The film reveals how SNAP benefits (less than $5 a day, on average), and the income requirements to even qualify for them (a maximum of $29,000 for a family of four), are hopelessly out of sync with the cost of living today. Even so, Bill Shore, founder of Share Our Strength, points out that there are 44 million Americans receiving SNAP benefits, and that one out of every 2 kids in The United States at some point in their childhood will be on food assistance.

Janet Poppendieck, author of Sweet Charity?, reveals the meager allowances school meal programs are given to actually spend on food (less than a dollar per child), and Top Chef's Tom Colicchio, one of the executive producers of A PLACE AT THE TABLE, explains that those government reimbursements are nearly the same today as they were in 1973. Colicchio has become a key activist for the funding and improvement of children's school food programs.

Rosie's story shows how in the absence of adequate governmental support services, food-insecure Americans have become dependent upon charity. Poppendieck discusses how the responsibility for feeding the hungry has been transferred to food banks and soup kitchens and what was once viewed as an emergency measure has become the norm, a way of life for almost 50 million people. Food banks and pantries in the US have become what Poppendieck calls, "a secondary food system for the poor" who can't afford the food in stores.

One example of our nation's charitable response to hunger is Pastor Bob Wilson, who spends hours every week driving to the Food Bank of The Rockies in Grand Junction to pick up food for the hungry in his community. That doesn't include the time he spends delivering food to those who need it, providing after-school meals at his Kid's Cafe and serving a weekly dinner for his community.

Rosie's 5th grade teacher, Leslie Nichols, who vividly recalls the shame of being in a hungry family, is one of Pastor Bob's volunteers, delivering bags of charity food to food insecure families every week. She tries to schedule her drop-offs when people aren't home to avoid causing them similar shame. While she knows that the food bank items are better than nothing, she's aware that the donated products are often the least expensive, and unhealthiest, foods.

The filmmakers explore the connection between hunger and obesity in Tremonica's story. It's not a coincidence that Mississippi not only has the highest rate of food insecurity in the U.S. but also the highest rate of obesity. Ken Cook, President, Environmental Working Group, and Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics and a respected expert on nutrition and the intersection of nutrition and commerce, explain the evolution of farm subsidies and how these subsidies and commodity crops directly affect the prices of processed foods, making them the only really affordable choice for those with limited means.

We also learn about the problem of "food deserts"--where residents of lower-income communities, both rural and urban, don't have access to healthy, nutritious food. They are forced to travel long distances to buy items such as fresh fruit and vegetables--or go without--because suppliers and business owners have determined it isn't cost-effective to make them available in their local stores. It's as much of a problem for residents of Barbie's urban neighborhood in North Philadelphia as it is for Tremonica and her mother in Jonestown, Mississippi.

In all three stories, we see how food-insecurity has seriously affected the health and well-being of Americans. In Barbie's case, her son Aidan now suffers from an immune deficiency disease, which caused hearing and speech problems.

Dr. Mariana Chilton, founder, Witnesses to Hunger, who investigates the health impacts of hunger and food insecurity among young children in Philadelphia for Children's Health Watch, explains how even brief periods of nutritional deprivation during the first three years of life can permanently affect a child's brain and have lifelong consequences. Her frustration with the lack of governmental attention to the issue led her and 40 North Philadelphia mothers, including Barbie, to form the organization "Witnesses to Hunger."

Because Leslie Nichols experienced hunger herself, she understands how hunger has affected Rosie's ability to focus and concentrate in class. Leslie's willingness to give Rosie the extra time and attention she needs has paid off: her absences from school dropped from 20 days the previous year to seven this year, but Leslie remembers all too well the stigma and shame she felt as a hungry child, a shame that she still carries within her. From this we can imagine that Rosie will carry a similar emotional burden throughout her life.

Tremonica is overweight and has asthma, and is a prime candidate for type 2 diabetes. Dr. Alfio Rausa, a district health officer of the Mississippi State Department of Health, has seen firsthand how the predominance of processed foods in the diets of children have led to alarmingly high rates of obesity and diabetes as well as asthma and other conditions. Dr. William Booker, medical director, Aaron E. Henry Community Health Center, knows that the people who develop these diseases have a greater chance of getting end stage complications at an early age. Tremonica's 2nd grade teacher, Odessa Cherry, is part of a program in Mississippi schools that is trying to educate children about nutrition, teach them about fruits and vegetables and empowering them to make healthy choices. Tom Colicchio believes that unless we educate people to do what they need to reduce some of these problems and make healthy food accessible, this generation will be the first to live sicker and die younger than their parents' generation, a sad reversal of the American dream.

Despite their struggles with food insecurity, these Americans still have hope they'll reach their goals. Barbie's dream is to go to college. Tremonica would like to be able to play at recess without experiencing shortness of breath. Rosie has two dreams: 1) to be an honor student, and 2) to be picked for Extreme Makeover Home Edition, so she could have her own bedroom and not have to sleep in the laundry room with her sister and her dog.. Ironically, she doesn't believe her family will ever be picked for the show because "we don't have a story like they do." She also dreams that her children will "never be hungry."

Ultimately, in A PLACE AT THE TABLE, we are forced to examine our priorities as a society. Ending hunger is not a case of our having to find a cure for a disease or try to convince some other country on the other side of the world not to make nuclear weapons. We know what the solutions are.

What's required is shifting our perspective so that the cost of hunger to America isn't simply viewed as the price of food stamps and food supplement programs. Instead, it's accepting that obesity and health issues caused by lack of access to healthy food costs the U.S. approximately $167 billion per year. Larry Brown sums it up succinctly: "We're wasting billions of dollars by not spending less to fix hunger."

It's also seeing the price paid in lost potential. One in 3 children born in the year 2000 will develop Type 2 Diabetes, leading to health-related compromises throughout their lives. Those same kids could be the leaders of tomorrow, but because we're failing to solve this problem, we're failing them and selling the U.S. short.

When the quality of health, learning and productivity of our nation suffers, we are all affected. But what about our obligations to one another as Americans? What does it say about us as a nation that we are willing to let nearly 30% of the population struggle when we have the resources and know-how to do better? Isn't it time we regained our moral compass as a people?

As Jeff Bridges says, "It's about patriotism really. Stand up for your country. How do you envision your country? Do you envision it a country where one in four of the kids are hungry?"