Hunger, a social issues many people think only occurs in third-world nations, is a growing political condition that has surprisingly risen across America over the past 30 years. While the country has the resources to end food insecurity, a condition in which families are unsure where they’ll be getting their next meal from, Americans often lack the political will to find a solution. Food insecurity brings about feelings of shame and embarrassment among people suffering from it, making it even harder for them to find their next meal. But the new documentary, ‘A Place at the Table,’ has created a social action campaign to help draw attention to, and end, the interconnected issues of hunger and poverty.
‘A Place at the Table’ exposes the growing domestic problem of food insecurity, which affects one out of six Americans. Directors Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush examine Americans’ struggles to provide food for their families through the stories of three people struggle with food insecurity: Barbie, a single Philadelphia mother who grew up in poverty, and is trying to provide a better life for her two children; Rosie, a Colorado fifth-grader who often has to depend on friends and neighbors for food, and often has concentrating in school, due to the lack of food she has at home; and Tremonica, a Mississippi second-grader whose asthma and health issues are exacerbated by the largely empty calories that her mother can afford. Their stories are interwoven with insights from experts, including sociologists Janet Poppendieck and nutrition policy leader Marion Nestle, and such activists as ‘Top Chef’s Tom Colicchio and actor Jeff Bridges.
Bridges, Colicchio, Silverbush, Jacobson and Bill Shore, the founder and CEO of the nonprofit Share Our Strength, which works to end childhood hunger in America, generously took the time recently to talk about ‘A Place at the Table’ during a press conference at New York City’s Crosby Hotel. They discussed such topics as the fact that millions of people aren’t aware about how serious the hunger problem is in the U.S.; how some Americans’ income are too high to qualify for government assistance, but they still can’t afford to feed their family; and what they’ve done in their entertainment careers to help raise more awareness of the hunger problem in America.
Question (Q): You’ve talked about the millions of dollars that get spent on healthcare, but there isn’t even a million dollars spent on food. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Lori Silverbush (LS): I think you’re referring to the fact that it costs our economy billions of dollars not to address health care. There’s close to $167 billion in lost productivity, education and health care costs, most of which is spent on preventable diseases. I do think that if we, as a nation, come up with some government programs that work really well, and fund them adequately, it would be half that number.
Billy Shore (BS): I think the reason our film is so important is that the funds actually exist. Many of the programs that are integrated into this film are actually exempt from the new budget cuts (that went into effect yesterday). There are hundreds of thousands of kids already participating, and the money is already there for it. One of the things that I think is so powerful about this film is that it gives voice to the fact that this is a solvable problem. We have the resources to solve it.
Q: Do you think that part of the problem is that millions of people aren’t aware about how serious the hunger problem is in America? And do you think part of the solution is public awareness?
Jeff Bridges (JB): You said it. That is a huge part of the problem. Back in 1986, an organization I helped found called the End Hunger Network produced a film called ‘Hidden in America’ that my brother Beau starred in. It’s just as relevant today as it was back then. And like that title ‘Hidden in America,’ it’s an embarrassing thing for our country to acknowledge that one in five of our kids don’t have enough food to eat.
It’s not only embarrassing for our government but also or the people who are struggling with that-the social stigma of a kid going to school and getting the stamp of “Oh, he’s the poor kid who eats a special breakfast before school.” Kids get teased about that, so they’d rather not admit that nutrition, so they’ll just stay hungry, and of course won’t be able to focus in school, and have health problems for most of their lives.
So you’re right. To turn that around, people have to wake up to this condition and take some action-that step between “Gee, I couldn’t do that” and “No, I’m going to do that. That’s what I’m going to do: make a difference in my community,” because I think the film points this out as well: Each community is a different challenge on addressing hunger in each person. I’m in the entertainment business, so I try to raise media attention and stuff like that, but everyone can look into their own lives and think, “How might I help this problem and end this problem of hunger?”
Kristi Jacobson (KJ): I think Jeff raised the question of why this problem exists. It’s a combination of that you can’t see. We don’t know if there’s someone on the subway or the bus or your neighborhood who’s struggling. Like the young girl Rosie in the film, we’re not conditioned to think what hunger looks like. Hopefully with the film, we can talk about that, and how there’s so much pain, in kids and adults alike.
The shame a child experiences when going to school hungry, or going to a soup kitchen, stays with those children for a lifetime. In addition to the health issues and cognitive problems food insecurity can have, people like Leslie Nichols, who we feature in the film, talk about how they feel like they still live under this inferiority that only Americans are feeling right now. I think it’s our job to make it visible right now. Once I understood it, I could not not make this film. The audience may have a desire to do something, and do their part to make it visible.
LS: Also to that, we’re helping to change the dialogue around it. So much of the national dialogue is about takers who want hand-outs, and that’s a really corrosive thing. That contributes to the feelings of the people who did nothing wrong. As we show, over 80 percent of homes collecting public assistance or food assistance have at least one working adult, so they are doing something to fulfill the social contract, and they still can’t afford food.
So we can start by not accepting that kind of language around these kinds of programs. We don’t make people feel like takers because they qualify for Social Security at some point in their life, or workman’s comp. This is something I think we can all do to erase that stigma.
BS: Even policy makers in Congress are unaware of the depth of the issue. You tell governors that only 40 percent of the children eligible for school breakfast are receiving it, and they’re shocked. It shows that these children are vulnerable.
What’s great about this film is that it brings a voice, because nothing else is being said. Governors are in a position to make a huge difference. Once they’ve understood that, they say “We have to do something to fix this. What can we do to get kids the nutrition they need?”
Tom Colicchio (TC): We’ve seen in the (2012 U.S.) presidential election, how many debates did we see in the primaries or the vice-presidential debates, (this hunger issue) did not come up once, except for someone getting labeled “the food-stamp president.” Other than that, it was not part of the debate.
JB: One of the things I got very excited about with (Barack) Obama was that when he was campaigning (for the 2008 election), he said, “We’re going to end childhood hunger by 2015.” And all of the hunger organizations said, “Oh, we’re taking our direction from our now.”
And they figured it out. They had the big meetings and got all of their ideas together and figured it out. And now, we have an even better plan, but I’m really disappointed in our government for not following through with that and not mentioning anything about hunger in the speeches or the State of the Union (address).
TC: I think at some point that if politicians are not going to get on board to fund these programs or focus on this issue, at some point they have to be labeled “pro-hunger.” It almost has to happen. It almost has to be an embarrassment, a label that is put on you that hopefully then, maybe, you decide that you don’t want that label, you don’t want that stigma yourself. You’re forced to do something about it.
LS: I think you bring up a really good point. But I don’t think anyone can expect our government to act, and do whatever it is we want them to do. Legislatures on the hill are telling us their phones aren’t ringing, and they’re not getting texts or emails. We made this movie to convince people if they want change, they have to go after it.
We know how to fix hunger; it’s not a mysterious condition. We need to tell them; I feel they want to keep their jobs. Their reelection is contingent on listening to what people say.
One of the good things about working with Participant Media is that they have an amazing track record of building, like for ‘Waiting For Superman’ and ‘An Inconvenient Truth,’ campaigns that make it easy for people to sign on with one text and tweet. We’re excited because we launched a massive social campaign that will help people.
Q: Jeff, when did this hunger issue become important to you, both socially and personally?
JB: I got involved about 30 years ago. And initially, it was all about ending world hunger. And I was made aware of the problem and that it was a solvable problem. Many countries had ended hunger. It wasn’t a matter of not having enough food or enough money or enough know-how, but it was a matter of creating the political will.
And, of course, the political will, since the politicians represent us, it’s about personal will. “What am I going to do?” So when I learned the facts about hunger, I thought, “What am I going to do? Am I just going to do nothing and let it continue, or am I going to look at my own life and see what kind of fits in naturally?”
So it’s not just a matter of making a gesture and giving a hundred bucks and scratching the guilt itch, but really staying with it until the (problem) ends. That’s what it’s going to take. I thought, “Well, I’m an entertainer. I deal with the media all the time. I can make films. I can do that.”
So I helped found this organization called the End Hunger Network. We did a lot of stuff over the years: Live Aid. We wrote a lot of the copy for that. It was about 20 years ago that ketchup was considered a vegetable.
I thought, “I better shift my attention to my country, because we can’t teach other people how to do it when we’re not doing it.” The safety nets that were in place started to get holes in them. So I shifted my attention to hunger here.
About three years ago, I got hooked up with Bill, and we did this great campaign called No Kid Hungry, where we go from state to state, working with governors and mayors, making sure that the kids in their state have access to over a billion dollars of government funding that’s available to all of these states, but if they don’t take advantage of it, the kids aren’t getting that nutrition. And it seemed like a great way to help turn hunger around in this country.
It’s all about ending childhood hunger, No Kid Hungry, but that’s sort of the tip of the iceberg. Hunger is really about poverty, which is a very complex issue, but feeding a kid isn’t. That’s a good place to start at least.
We have the know-how, we have the money, we certainly have the problem. And we can end childhood hunger. And that’s a step that I’m excited about taking. But also this film [“No Place at the Table”] that Share Our Strength and No Kid Hungry has been a part of is a wonderful tool that we can teach people about what the condition is in our country and what they might do.
I think it’s important that you look inside your heart and find out what you can do personally … getting the politicians on board and making them aware. It’s something that we can look into: How can we facilitate people doing that? This movie is a start, but make it possible for people to get the message out to their politicians.
Q: Since you became involved in this issue, how has your approach to food and diet in your own life changed?
JB: I’m lucky. My wife feeds me well. She gives me a morning drink with all kinds of vitamins and all kinds of stuff and salad. I go up and down. Every once in a while, I’ll try to get back on track.
Q: Do you find yourself trying to eat everything on your plate because you know that other people may not be as lucky to have regular meals?
JB: Probably not as much. Remember that thing when you were growing up? “Eat! Kids are starving in China!” I could be more conscientious about that. What were the things that come to mind was just learning more about food. I think it’s an important thing.
When I went to school, we had cafeterias, we had kitchens. Nowadays, the food kind of comes in, in this ersatz sawdust kind of food. Kids don’t really get the nutrition. They don’t really know about vegetables.
One of the things that I’m trying to do is get the place where I live, Santa Barbara, to be the first No Kid Hungry county. We’re doing a whole program of getting the kids out of the classroom and into the garden. “That carrot is dirty because it comes out of the ground. That’s where these things come from!” The kids don’t know what vegetables really are.
TC: My mother ran a school lunch program, so she was clearly aware of the kids coming into her lunch room where breakfast and lunch were the only [meals] they were getting. Food was really important. We were required to be at the table for dinner.
We have young children at home, and they eat well. We’re comfortable, but I’m still not comfortable with the fact that 15 million Americans don’t know where their next meal is coming from.
Q: What can you say about the problem of people whose income is too high to qualify for government assistance but that income still isn’t enough to feed their family?
TC: The average person spends about five hours a week cooking for their family, yet the government, the plan at which they use to calculate food stamps called the Thrifty Food Plan, they assume that that person has over 13 hours [a week] to cook for their family. So they make certain foods that are only available under that plan. If you look at that plan, it’s almost punitive to people who rely on SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] to provide food for their families.
Q: Besides getting involved with ‘A Place At the Table,’ what have you personally done in your entertainment careers to help raise more awareness of this hunger problem in America?
TC: About 25 years ago, Billy’s organization, Share Our Strength, started Taste the Nation. Billy encouraged chefs to get together and raise money for hunger issues and for Share Our Strength. So for 25 years, I’ve been involved in raising money. This is part of the reason the film came about. Lori and I are married. She went to a lot of events with me. And right around the same time, she was mentoring a young girl, whom she realized was often hungry.
I always thought that raising money was the answer. I was sort of happy to think that that was enough. It wasn’t until Lori and Kristi started digging into the issue that it’s not enough. In fact, if it were enough, we’ve raised a lot of money, and these organizations are doing amazing work. Food banks (in the U.S.) have grown from 400 in the ‘70s to 40,000 now. If just creating food banks and raising more money was the answer, we would’ve gotten rid of hunger a while ago. So you start digging through reasons, and you start looking at the root cause. Some of the work I’ve done in the past led to the making of the film.
We’ve done stuff on ‘Top Chef.; We had challenge where they had to use the budget for a school lunch. We’ve worked in diabetic cancer with kids and stuff like that. And I’m also proud to say that they’re getting behind the film in a big way.
In the (recent Season 10) finale, there was a big banner talking about the film and promoting the film. They’re behind it 100 percent. In fact, NBC Universal’s (the parent company of Bravo, the U.S TV network for ‘Top Chef’), campaign this year is on poverty.
JB: With my dear friend T. Bone Burnett, who did the music for the film, we put on concerts together where proceeds will go toward ending hunger in various communities. We spread the word that way.
I mentioned before that it was a big challenge to do a dramatic film that didn’t break out the violins but really let the viewers see what it would be like to be working poor, to have two or three jobs and still can’t put enough food on the table and a roof over their head and deal with a medical problem that might come up and what that really feels like.
My brother did a wonderful job in that film. I’m always looking for some way I can get the word out. We did a documentary for the Food Network that was another tool that people can use to teach people about the problem. I won’t give you the list, but it’s 30 years of doing that kind of thing.
Q: Can you talk about how the huge population growth in the United States has affected the hunger crisis, especially in areas where there is little access to fresh food?
JB: Something I’m trying to promote in Santa Barbara is community gardens. We have all these public buildings with lawns out on front. Why not make them gardens? As far as irrigating, it would take less water to have nutritious food to eat.
Also, it would encourage classrooms to take on the gardening, and learn about math and all these different countries and everything. Make it a part of the education. School is educating your head, but it’s also educating your palate, what you’re used to eating.
You talk about obesity. Your palate gets used to eating pizza pockets or whatever they’re called. But if you’re used to eating red bell peppers and carrots — and there’s nothing like a tomato right off the vine. A kid eats that and goes, “Oh, wow! That tastes great!” Educate kids that way. That’s something I’m working on.
Q: ‘A Place at the Table’ shows that even people who are working full-time and have more than one job can still have a hard time feeding their family. What do you think needs to be done to solve this problem?
JB: I think the minimum wage needs to be raised. I think what we’re doing with the No Kid Hungry program, assuring that children are fed — as we were talking about, charity is a wonderful thing, food banks are a wonderful thing, but that doesn’t get the job done. Government has to take some part of it. It’s a public and a private job — the private sector as well as our government, both of us have to work in concert to deal with the problem.
TC: I’m a small-business owner, and I think the minimum wage should go up. (Obama) suggested $9 an hour. I think that’s inadequate. I think it needs to drastically go up.
I know there are arguments for why (the minimum wage shouldn’t increase): People will be out of work because companies will start laying people off, but I think that can be addressed on the back end with tax cuts to businesses that are actually hiring people. If you think about it, if we get that up to a reasonable level, government will shrink because less people will need public assistance. And then you have lower taxes. Last time I checked, that was what fiscal conservatives or Republicans are after. That should work.
Written by: Karen Benardello