Sometimes a documentary is more than a non-fiction film. Sometimes it becomes a cause.
That was the idea behind the film “Bully” last year, a movie that tapped into a national movement, a national conversation about bullying.
And somewhere in the four-year process of making the critically acclaimed “A Place at the Table,” filmmakers Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush realized that they wanted more than a movie out of their research into hunger in America. They wanted to start a conversation.
“I was stunned when I learned there is hunger and food insecurity in every single corner of America,” Jacobson says.
They met with experts, networked with food assistance organizations, and found hungry and poorly nourished people in cities across the nation, and in small towns from Colorado to Mississippi.
“It was not the picture of hunger I expected to find,” says Jacobson, a New Yorker.
It wasn’t just urban, it was rural. It cuts across racial boundaries. And it’s not just the unemployed, but the working poor who face it, too, she says.
“Multiply these deeply personal stories times 50 million and you get a movie you have to make,” Jacobson points out.
The stories of the little Colorado girl, part of two extended families sharing the same house, adults all working but unable to afford enough food; a single mom in Philadelphia; a waitress in Mississippi; all “help the numbers resonate more deeply and who also illuminate just how entrenched and complex the hunger crisis has become in our country,” Slant Magazine stated of the film.
“A Place at the Table” ties together hunger and America’s obesity epidemic, the “food deserts” where only cheap, subsidized processed food is available to people of limited means and no transportation. People who can only find and buy junk food get fat. The government’s decision, in the 1980s, to pass this problem on to food banks means that there are 40,000 of them operating, stretched to their limits today, when there were only 200 when Ronald Reagan took office and food programs were cut back.
Agriculture Department policies and Congressional backing of subsidies to huge corn, wheat and soy producers means that processed food, the worst food for consumers, is cheaper. The film details how mall fruit growers and vegetable farmers don’t have “a place at the table” any more than the working poor. It shows how school breakfast and lunch programs have been slashed over the decades because they have little lobbying clout behind them.
“People wouldn’t believe it if we told these stories in a narrative film,” Jacobson says. “It’s happening in a country with plenty of money and plenty of food.”
Their first step was learning about the problem themselves. Jacobson says the second step was finishing the film, which shines a spotlight on an issue little discussed in public life.
“Our film will help with that,” she believes. “And if we’ve done our job, to be entertaining and be inspiring, you’ll want to get involved. “
And the third step? A national action center on hunger. The website connected with the film, www.take.com/table, “allows you to call your Congress people, volunteer at a food bank or whatever,” she says.
“If we make this an issue politicians have to respond to in order to get elected, if we can bring transparency to how they’re voting and who they’re listening to, we can make a difference,” she continues. “If we all take action, a conversation will start and we can move the ball on these policy issues that address hunger.”