New Documentary Puts Homegrown Issue of Hunger on the Table

March 1, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Although the United States is the largest producer of food per capita in the world, that food is not reaching the plates of millions of children in America. Hunger is the subject of the new documentary, "A Place at the Table." Ray Suarez talks with co-director Lori Silverbush about our homegrown problem.

JEFFREY BROWN: Next, we turn to a problem plaguing one in four children in the United States today: hunger.

A film opening nationwide today profiles some of the hardest-hit.

Ray Suarez has our conversation.

RAY SUAREZ: It’s a bitter paradox. The United States produces more food per person than any other country in the world, but still has a major problem with hunger, a hardship that only grew worse during the recession and its aftermath.

The government estimates some 50 million people are living with food insecurity, meaning they don’t always have adequate nutrition for an active and healthy life. A new documentary called “A Place at the Table” challenges the viewers’ assumptions about who is hungry and why.

Here’s an excerpt.

WOMAN: Hunger definitely impacts my classroom. I have had students come to me upset. And it’s definitely a huge issue in our small community.

One student in particular, Rosie, I just really felt she wasn’t really applying herself in the classroom, and I couldn’t figure out where that attitude was coming from. So I felt that she just really didn’t care about what I wanted her to learn or that school wasn’t that important. And what I realized when I brought her in one day was the main issue was that she was hungry.

ROSIE: I struggle a lot. And most of the time, it was because my stomach is really hurting. And my teacher tells me to get focused. And she told me to write — focus on my little sticker. And every time I look at it, I’m like, oh, I’m supposed to be focusing.

I start yawning. And then I just don’t — and so I’m just looking at the teacher, and I look at her, and all I think about is food.

RAY SUAREZ: Joining me now is the film’s co-director, Lori Silverbush.

A baby can’t tell you what’s wrong with them. They know something’s wrong, but they don’t know what it is. An adult can sometimes pull up their socks and do something about their predicament.

LORI SILVERBUSH, Co-Director, “A Place at the Table”: Sometimes.

RAY SUAREZ: Rosie was old enough to know what was wrong, but too young to do much about it. And when she was talking about being hungry at school, that was awful.

LORI SILVERBUSH: It’s pretty awful.

And you have to ask yourself — you know, we’re in a nation where 17 million children face food insecurity, which means that at any given time, their families don’t know where their next meal is coming from. We’re investing all of this money and energy into teachers.

And yet we’re setting up our kids for failure if they show up to school too hungry or too malnourished, even if they are not feeling hunger pangs. But if all their family can afford is the empty calories from a pack of ramen noodles or some chips, or whatever the cheapest calories are that they give their kids to eat, because that is, sadly, what many, many millions of Americans can afford, what are we saying about our aspirations for our nation’s kids putting them in front of teachers, but unable to learn, and then frankly also blaming them for the situation?

A hungry kid isn’t always easy to recognize. It could be a kid who looks like everybody else, but is acting out or isn’t able to sit still or isn’t listening or isn’t absorbing. And that could even become a social and a behavioral problem and a disciplinary problem.

So we’re really not serving our kids well by not paying attention to this. And, quite frankly we’re being, I think, a little irresponsible with our taxpayers dollars by spending money on schools, but not giving them — delivering children who can learn.

RAY SUAREZ: We meet families that are working hard and working a lot, and still not making ends meet, and the gruesome story of Barbara Izquierdo in Philadelphia, who after a long spell of unemployment, gets back to work and automatically loses a lot of the programs that were helping her keep her — keep food on the table.


I mean, Barbie was an amazing character, because she was simultaneously dramatic and interesting to watch, but also super articulate. And despite her struggles and despite how hard she was working to be a good role model to her children and to provide healthy food for them, she was also an activist on a national level around this, as part of the Witnesses to Hunger, which were 40 women in the North Philly area who had documented the struggle to put food on the table.

And they were taking their photographs around the country and showing people. And through her activism, Barbie got a job after many, many months of unemployment, through no fault of her own. She ended up getting a job. It was counseling other people and helping them get food benefits. And she got so much — there was so much satisfaction and so much self-worth and she was so excited.

But the truth is that the salary that she got paid put her just above the level of qualification for SNAP, which is what — food stamps, what we call food stamps today. And she was cut off immediately. And her children, as a consequence of her working, were cut off from a state-subsidized day care, where they received healthy meals.

And, ironically, after going to work and sort of fulfilling her side of the social contract, as we like to think of it, her children were hungrier than before.

RAY SUAREZ: You take us to visit working poor families around the country in a rural area, right in the heart of a big American city, and in a small town.


RAY SUAREZ: Were they glad to you have there?


RAY SUAREZ: Did they find it an intrusion?

LORI SILVERBUSH: Well, I think we worked very hard to establish trust and to develop relationships. We didn’t just show up with a camera and say, oh, let us in and shoot.

We cast a really wide net. We learned in our research that every single county in the United States is grappling with this issue. That meant that we wanted to represent the wide variety of people that are facing food insecurity. And there were a number of groups that are very active working on this. And they were able to introduce us to people that you meet in our film, like Pastor Bob, who introduced us to the community of Collbran in Colorado.

He was able to show us a town where every single member of the town was impacted in one way or another by food insecurity. And these are people who are quite proud, quite private, and were not necessarily looking to talk about something that quite — some of them felt some shame around. This is an issue that carries a good deal of stigma. It shouldn’t, but it does.

And over time, we were able to sort of get people to understand that we were on their side and that they were not to blame — at least we didn’t think they were to blame — for the situation they found themselves in. And they opened up quite courageously in most cases.

RAY SUAREZ: So you watch the movie, and these beautifully drawn portraits and gorgeous photography.


RAY SUAREZ: You sympathize. You empathize. And then what?

LORI SILVERBUSH: Well, everybody has a stake in fixing this. One of the great things is that at this same time as this movie launches, on March 1 — and it’s coming into theaters. It will be on iTunes the same day. It will be on demand the same day, so that people all over the country can see it, whether they are near a movie theater playing it or not.

On the same day, we’re launching a national action center, the first of its kind, around hunger, where all of the major national hunger groups are getting together, also, with state groups and with local groups. You can plug in your zip code and find out exactly what you can do at any given moment to affect the policies that are being decided right now on the Hill, to affect what’s happening in your own backyard, to engage on any level of activism that you want.

And the truth is that, if we engage as citizens on this, and we let our representatives know that it’s time to fix this, they will fix it. But we can’t expect government to do the right thing unless we have told them that it matters to us. So, hopefully, this film is going to give people the awareness, the engagement and excitement around it, wants to activate them, and then gives them — will give them very clear and accessible tools to do that.

RAY SUAREZ: The film is “A Place at the Table.”

Lori Silverbush, thanks a lot.

LORI SILVERBUSH: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

JEFFREY BROWN: We have more from Ray’s interview, plus selected clips from “A Place at the Table.” That’s on our website.