With 50 Million Hungry in U.S., New Film Demands ‘A Place at the Table’

The classroom sometimes gets a little blurry for Rosie, a fifth-grader in Colorado. And when it does — when she starts picturing her teacher as a banana or her classmates as apples — Rosie reads a single word that she’s written on her desk: “Focus.”

“Every time I look at it, I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m supposed to be focusing,'” Rosie said. “I struggle a lot. And most of the time, it’s because my stomach is really hurting.”

Rosie is one of 50 million people in the U.S. today living with “food insecurity,” meaning they don’t always have access to enough nutritious food to live an active and healthy life. Her story is part of a “A Place at the Table,” a new documentary challenging assumptions about who is hungry and why.

Co-director Lori Silverbush stopped by the PBS NewsHour recently to talk with Ray Suarez about the film and why the United States, which produces more food per person than any other country in the world, still has a major problem with hunger.

Watch their conversation above or read the full transcript below.

Among the low-income parents she interviewed for the the film, Silverbush was particularly impacted by Barbara Izquierdo, a single mother in north Philadelphia. “Barbie” struggled for years to put food on the table for her two small children. The battle became even harder after she landed a low-wage job and began making just above the income level to qualify for Food Stamps.

“She was cut off immediately,” Silverbush said. “And her children, as a consequence of her working, were cut off from a state-subsidized day care, where they received healthy meals. Ironically, after going to work and fulfilling her side of the ‘social contract,’ as we like to think of it, her children were hungrier than before.” Watch an excerpt from Barbie’s portion of the film:

While Izquierdo was outspoken about her situation, Silverbush said it was difficult to convince others to talk so freely — especially in a documentary.

“These are people who are quite proud, quite private and were not necessarily looking to talk about something that some of them felt some shame around. You know, this is an issue that carries a good deal of stigma,” she said. “It shouldn’t. But it does.”

Those who do seek help often turn to the generosity of the community. But there can be nutritional problems with charity food, too, the film points out — especially if a family is forced to rely on it for the long-term.

“A Place at the Table” opens nationwide March 1 in theaters, on iTunes, and on-demand through some cable providers. For more information, visit the film’s website. The above photos and clips from the film were provided by Magnolia Pictures.


RAY SUAREZ: Joining me now is the film’s co-director, Lori Silverbush. 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. Were they glad to have you there?


RAY SUAREZ: Did they find it an intrusion?

LORI SILVERBUSH: Well I think we worked very hard to establish trust and develop relationships. We didn’t just show up with a camera and say, ‘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 facing food insecurity.

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 is 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 some of them felt some shame around. You know, this is an issue that carries a good deal of stigma. It shouldn’t. But it does. And over time, we were able to 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: Along with the personal, you also give us a quick schooling in politics and policy. On purpose, I’m sure, but you have to be careful, I guess.

LORI SILVERBUSH: Well, yes, you have to be careful. But also the nice thing about being an independent filmmaker, as is my partner, Kristi Jacobson, is that our jobs don’t depend on towing somebody else’s line. We could tell it as we saw it. And we let the issue teach us what was going on. And what we learned, as you pointed out, is this country has more than enough food. So food insecurity in this country is not an issue of scarcity. It’s an issue of, quite frankly, politics. We have policies in place that are keeping people from being able to either afford adequate food or access adequate food. And when something has a political cause, then it should have a political solution.

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 food on the table.

LORI SILVERBUSH: Yeah, 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. 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, and she ended up getting a job. It was counseling other people and helping them get food benefits. And she got 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 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 fulfilling her side of the “social contract,” as we like to think of it, her children were hungrier than before.

RAY SUAREZ: One of the toughest things to watch in the whole movie for me had to do with the little girl in Colorado.


RAY SUAREZ: 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.


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 and having a note on the top of her desk that said, ‘Focus,’ to take her mind off the hunger pangs in her stomach, that was awful.

LORI SILVERBUSH: It’s pretty awful. And you have to ask yourself, we’re in this 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 for school too hungry or too malnourished, even if they’re 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 can 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, often 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 we’re being, frankly, a little irresponsible with our taxpayers’ dollars by spending money on schools but not delivering children who can learn.

RAY SUAREZ: So you watch the movie and these beautifully drawn portraits and gorgeous photography. You sympathize, you empathize, and then what?

LORI SILVERBUSH: Well for one thing, I think that it’s going to land for people because there are stories that look like you, they look like me. We were able in our making of this movie to debunk a lot of our own stereotypes about who goes hungry. And hopefully when people see this movie, they’re going to go, ‘Wow, I didn’t realize this. This is a cop, this is a mother, this is a rancher, this is a teacher. These are people that I know in my community. And it’s much harder to ignore something when you can no longer claim it as the other.

Fifty million Americans are suffering from this, which means every single American is impacted, whether they know it or not. And if kids are going hungry in your kids classroom, then that’s resources that are being taken from your kids because of the extra demands that that places on the system. And if you’re paying the health care bill for people that have diseases and illnesses related to hunger and malnutrition and obesity, that’s also affecting you. So everybody has a stake in fixing this.

And one of the great things is that at the same thing as this movie launches, on March 1, and it’s coming into theaters, it’ll be on iTunes the same day, it’ll be on-demand the same day, so that people all over the country can see it whether they’re near a movie theater playing it or not. And 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.

The truth is that if we engage as citizens on this and 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’ve 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 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.