New film seeks ‘a place at the table’ for America’s hungry

Editor’s note: This story is courtesy of MPR reporter Julie Siple who covers hunger and related issues in Minnesota. Thanks, Julie!

Filmmaker Lori Silverbush still remembers the phone call.

She was mentoring a young girl named Sabrina in New York when Sabrina’s principal called with news: The girl was scavenging for food in the lunchroom trash. Silverbush often sent the girl home fed, but she knew it wasn’t a solution.

“What about the next morning, when she would have to wake up and go to school?” Silverbush wondered. “And what about the next evening, and what about her brothers and sisters?”

The experience led Silverbush to spend three years producing A Place at the Table, a devastating exploration of hunger in America that kicks off the Twin Cities Film Fest tonight.

Now in its third year, the festival will show 40 features and 20 shorts at St. Louis Park’s ShowPlace ICON tonight through October 20. Traditionally, the festival opens with a film about a pressing social issue.

Hunger, Silverbush said, is just that.

“Fifty million Americans – that’s not a fringe, that’s not the screw-ups, that’s not the people you probably have in your head as the hungry people – 50 million Americans have to wonder, sometimes daily, sometimes weekly, how they’re going to get food on the table for their families,” Silverbush said. “And that’s energy they’re not devoting to their work, to parenting, to their communities. It’s a great drain.”

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Silverbush and co-director Kristi Jacobson followed three Americans struggling with hunger. Barbie is a young mother in Philadelphia who swore she wouldn’t feed her kids canned spaghetti every day, but sometimes can’t get by any other way. Rosie is a Colorado fifth grader who has trouble concentrating in school. Tremonica is a Mississippi second grader whose obesity and asthma are made worse by the empty calories her mom can afford. Collectively, they paint a picture of what it means to be hungry in America today.

“Being hungry in America doesn’t look like what it looks like in Sub-Saharan Africa or in a developing nation,” Silverbush said. “It’s not the kid with the swollen belly and flies on his face. It’s actually a kid who might look just like your kid in school, but is unable to focus… because they didn’t get breakfast that morning.”

Across the country, hunger means sacrificing food for rent, she said, or medical care to put breakfast on the table.

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It’s a problem that still carries with it great stigma – something Silverbush saw as she traveled America untangling the causes and consequences of hunger. At food pantries in middle-class suburbs, hunger relief workers asked the filmmakers not to come, lest the cameras keep those in need away.

“One of our biggest surprises in making the film is that hardworking people, people who are playing by all the rules, and absolutely fulfilling their end of the social contract as most people would describe it, are still not able to get by,” Silverbush said.

The film weaves together portraits of hungry families with an exploration of the root causes of -and possible fixes for– hunger. It takes a close look at the political history of hunger in America, as well as the country’s agricultural policies and food systems.

“We really like to believe that people deserve credit for their own success and deserve blame for when they’re not making it,” Silverbush said. “But the truth is, there’s so much that goes into why someone might not be able to feed their family. The system is a little bit broken and the game is a little bit fixed.”

The documentary features scores of leading experts on hunger, including “Stuffed and Starved” author Raj Patel and “Sweet Charity?” author Janet Poppendieck. It lacks, however, any conservative voices that might argue against the expansion of nutrition programs such as food stamps.

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Lori Silverbush is in town to promote the film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was produced with Participant Media, the company also responsible for “Waiting for Superman” and “Food, Inc.” She’ll speak on a panel with Minnesota hunger relief experts tonight in advance of the 8:30pm showing. The film opens in theaters next spring.

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