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Q&A: A Place at the Table and hunger in the USA

MUSE Staffer Josh Stadtner sat down with director Lori Silverbush and her husband, celebrity chef Tom Colicchio, to discuss their new food documentary, A Place at the Table, which comes to theatres tomorrow. 

Barbie Izquierdo and kids in A Place at the Table.  PHOTO COURTESY Magnolia Pictures
Barbie Izquierdo and kids in A Place at the Table. PHOTO COURTESY Magnolia Pictures

Here’s an excerpt from the interview with the two about the film, which illuminates the seldom talked-about issue of hunger in the U.S. The documentary, produced by the company that produced Food, Inc. in 2008, makes the case that obesity, hunger and the governmental subsidization of large agribusiness are all interconnected.

JS: Why did you choose to make a documentary about hunger in the United States?

Lori: We knew there was an issue with hunger in this country … It really became personal for me when I was mentoring a kid who it turns out was going hungry and it was messing with her life in a big way … I helped get her into a private school that specialized in helping kids with learning disabilities.

Then I got a call from the principal that she was foraging in the trash for food. She was hungry because this school wasn’t mandated to serve breakfast or lunch, so she wasn’t getting the one meal a day that she was getting back in her public school. Every part of her life was suffering and that was shocking and upsetting.

So at first you think, well, we’ve got to feed this kid. So we did, we fed her. And she has siblings so we fed them too, but at a certain point you can feed as many people as you can, but they’re still going to be hungry the next day, and at a certain point you have to say, “Wait a minute, what’s going on?”

We need to look at the underlying issue here because, in a country that has so much food, how can so many people be going hungry? Once we started looking into the issue we discovered that it impacted about 50 million people. We discovered that there’s hunger in every single country, and we felt a responsibility to show who exactly is going hungry and maybe bust some of the stereotypes. So we did. We reached out to people and gathered a number of stories.

So here’s a scenario: You get an Ayn Rand supporter who says, “People go hungry because they’re not working hard enough and the country needs to be fiscally conservative here and not allow further subsidization for food in schools.” How do you respond to that?

Tom: You hope that both sides of the aisle can see this film and decide that this is a priority. That it’s a priority of government to take care of people less fortunate, regardless of how they got there. Because children have no choice in the matter, right? It’s not like they’re going out and not working hard enough, they just want to go to school and learn. You hope that public officials realize that this has become a health crisis, and that it’s something we can fix. If it becomes a priority, then you fund it — it’s as simple as that. It’s a similar situation to when Dole and McGovern got together and created the modern food safety net. You hope it happens again because we’re right back where we were in the 60’s.

Lori: If you’re worried about husbandry of governmental revenue, revenue is going down a leaky drain because of this issue. And if you’re only interested in your own pocket book then it makes a lot of sense to fix it. Right now we are spending multiples of what it would cost to fix this problem on lost productivity.

There are huge healthcare costs and educational outcomes. We’re putting kids through an expensive public school system — that the taxpayer is paying for — and if kids can’t learn, it’s wasted money. How can they become members of a self-sufficient workforce if they are not nourished enough to learn in school and be healthy?

Would you say that having a sugar tax or a ban on soft drinks over 16 ounces is a waste of initiative?

Lori: I don’t know if I would say that. Far more important than tweaks to food policy here and there is fixing a broken system. The truth of the matter is that our system is broken. We have double the calories for everyone in this country to eat well, yet we have 50 million Americans who are not getting enough food.

Tom: I think the better way to deal with over-consumption of sugar is to stop subsidizing corn. If the price goes up, then the 16-ounce soda isn’t going to be cheap anymore. There are a lot of different ways to look at it.

I know Jeff Bridges and T-Bone Burnett (who wrote music for the film) helped out with this film and have been active in this issue for a while. Did they come as a two-for-one deal?

Lori: (chuckles) No they are two exceedingly independent individuals and they don’t always march in step as it turns out. But T-Bone had worked with our partners, Participant Media, on a film called Waiting for Superman. He helped with a series of concerts to benefit education. The creative exec., Diane Weyermann, asked T-Bone if he would be interested in throwing a beneficial concert or something and he said, “I want to do more than that. When the time comes I want to do your soundtrack.”

Tom: You know, Jeff Bridges really puts it right in the film. He says this issue is about what kind of democracy you want to live in.

Do you think people will be depressed about a movie concerning hunger?

Lori: Did you leave feeling depressed or did you feel like we can do this? This issue is fixable and it’s doable.

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