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Endemic hunger in history's wealthiest nation

by Omer M. Mozaffar

When we imagine global hunger, we often think of dusty, loosely clad, skeletal Africans sitting outside tents, moving in slow motion as flies hover around them. The documentary, "A Place at the Table," makes it clear, however, that hunger is very much an American problem, too. It is one of the central challenges of life in the United States today. Some fifty million Americans are underfed. That is one out of six. When we speak of children, however, the stats get even worse: one out of four children, in history's wealthiest nation, now suffers from hunger.

The most common problem is not food scarcity, but "food instability." Simply put, the availabity of meals can be static and unpredictable. A child does not know when he or she will eat next. A second is the "food desert," the long distances residents may have to travel to obtain basic healthy produce and protein. The next is malnutrition, either a lack of food or the consumption of "empty calories" that don't offer essential nourishment.

The crisis affects all types of people in all corners of the country. Rosie, a gradeschooler in Colorado, is seemingly full of energy behind her little pair of glasses. At first glance, she appears to be a normal kid. But she suffers from such hunger that she gets headaches in class.

Elsewhere, budget cuts have reduced a small-town police force to a single officer, who isn't paid enough to feed himself. He has to join the crowds packing into the local church cafeteria for regular meals.

In Philadelphia, Barbie is a mother who happily takes her children to school and works as an advocate drawing attention to hunger matters. Her youngest son suffers from brain developmental issues and needs healthy food, but she cannot afford it. She earns just enough to disqualify her for public aid, yet not enough to consistently feed her children healthy food.

Public aid provides just a few dollars for many families to feed each of their children. In Mississipi, Tremonica, an obese second-grader, walks into a mobile medical office for a checkup. She's out of breath and suffers from asthma, which has been linked to junk food diets. She's overweight but malnourished because her mother can't afford to feed her fresh produce, which is more expensive than processed foods loaded with preservatives.

“A Place at the Table” takes a straightforward approach to its subject, without painting villains. Rather, it effectively argues that American hunger is a result of poverty and policy, not lack of food. America has more than enough agricultural capacity to feed everyone on a regular basis. But our current systems do not appropriately address need: thousands of families do not receive enough financial support to feed their families, either because the amount is so small, or because the income limits exclude parents with full-time jobs.

In addition, the government subsidizes farms to reduce production, which inflates the costs of fruits, vegetables, and meat. Further, giant agribusiness corporations sell inexpensive processed foods that harms children. Their lobbies are so strong that they are almost unstoppable.

I wish that the film could offer an innovative solution to these problems, but perhaps that is the point. This is a national crisis, requiring many methods of repair. Celebrities like Jeff Bridges and Tom Colicchio, the producer of television's Top Chef, help bring awareness to these injustices. One grade-school teacher makes house calls, paying out of her own pocket to stock her students' refrigerators. Another grade-school teacher finds ways to teach her own children about diet. Others travel to Washington to affect policy. This is a beautifully photographed, hopeful film, though its startling statistics indicate the troubles it chronicles will get far worse before they get better.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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