There are days when hunger so overwhelms Rosie that she loses focus in class and begins to hallucinate (her fellow fifth-grade students take the form of apples, her teacher a banana), and there’s no more visceral a moment in A Place at the Table than hearing the girl describe this feeling. Momentary hunger is a universal experience, and that makes it easier for directors Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush to create empathy for the basic plight of the 50 million Americans who suffer from food insecurity—not knowing where their next meal comes from. More difficult to convey are the web of moral and political issues that surround the hunger crisis, and the documentary proves its worth most by how it treats this wider set of problems.
Rosie is one of many malnourished kids interviewed in the documentary, which attests to the fact that half of the children in the United States will depend on federal food assistance at some point in their lives. Stats and figures like that feature prominently throughout A Place at the Table, presented mostly in neat, PowerPoint-like visuals. But the doc works best when it focuses on the individuals and families whose stories help the numbers resonate more deeply and who also illuminate just how entrenched and complex the hunger crisis has become in our country. Quite often, a positive turn in one subject’s life only serves to reveal a deeper problem. When Rosie’s teacher begins to deliver bags of food to the girl’s family every week, her pristine example of individual charity is complicated by the contents of the bags: starchy, processed food that’s often the cheapest and most accessible option, especially in small towns, but also results in severe health problems for those who can barely afford food at all. And when Barbie Izquierdo, a single mother of two, finally lands a job, she ceases to qualify for food stamps even though her pay isn’t high enough for her to live without them. Suddenly a stat from earlier in the film carries newfound weight: Eighty-five percent of families that suffer from food insecurity have at least one working adult, lacking in both a living wage and access to government resources.
A Place at the Table‘s proposed solution is relatively simple: wide government spending and a resurgence in social programs. It argues that in the late ‘70s, when food-stamp and school-cafeteria programs were properly funded, the problem of hunger was contained. When responsibility was shifted to charities and the private sector in the ‘80s, hunger rose again. In the wake of this argument, the doc’s tone sometimes suggests that the hunger crisis could be solved easily if people just put their minds to it. After all, the U.S. doesn’t face a shortage of food, but inequality of distribution—not famine but hunger. In other scenes, though, the movie complicates its own optimism. Because there’s enough food to feed the whole country, the roots of the hunger crisis lie elsewhere, in murkier class issues. One expert in the film notes that the primary question isn’t “Why don’t people have enough to eat?,” but rather “Why are people poor?” That’s certainly a more beguiling question, but also the more honest one, and A Place at the Table is a better movie for asking it.