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We at nextPix have always felt that socially relevant media would become more and more necessary and important as we moved into the new century. Issues of global economics, the environment, poverty, oppression – along with countless other pressing social problems – would be front and center in a new media age that focused on common human values. A Place at the Table, which I had the privilege of seeing at a recent screening in San Francisco, is an example of how this continues to hold true and demonstrates the significant shape socially relevant media can take.placeattable

Produced by Participant, the most well-known progenitor of socially conscious media, A Place at the Table chronicles an extremely important issue in this country: hunger in the midst of apparent plenty. Directed by Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush and featuring the celebrity clout of Jeff Bridges, the film delves into a paradoxical reality in America today: how we as a nation can be under and/or malnourished and yet, ironically, extremely efficient at producing vast quantities of food. The basic syndrome is known as ‘food insecurity’, and over 50 million Americans – one in four children – fall into the category of not knowing where their next meal is coming from.

The questions the film asks include: what kind of food do we produce, who consumes the worst of it, and how and why does this happen? Toward this end, the film a) conveys the problem, b) frames the debate and c) offers solutions. All three are done effectively, although in my own opinion some of the solutions explored in the film could have been expanded and elaborated on in a fashion that could reconcile the ‘left/right’ way the issue was sometimes framed.

According to A Place at the Table, a perhaps unintended but nonetheless  unholy alliance has formed between subsidized agribusiness, private food banks, charitable institutions, bad or gutted federal policy and, by implication, a health care industry that profits from a high quantity of diabetic, obese and otherwise sick people neatly provided to them by a dysfunctional system. We get quite a clear picture of who benefits from the current situation: large corporations.

The issue is fundamentally one of priorities and money: we subsidize the production of a few staple crops that get force-fed at the low (cost) spectrum of the food chain to the poor, who then can’t afford better food, and become trapped in a vicious poverty cycle that starts with being ill-fed, particularly as children. The result is kids who often can’t learn and grow up to be sick adults. To put it differently, we feed poor children foods that either buttress or in some cases create developmental challenges that keep them in endless rounds of poverty, lack of opportunity, illness and hopelessness that nonetheless keeps the large food and (by implication) health care providers and pharmaceuticals happy.

The film frames the debate by stating that the problem was, at one point, solved (during the 70’s) by visionary bi-partisan legislation starting with the Nixon administration. These visionary food programs, including an expansion of school lunch programs and adding a breakfast equivalent, were subsequently gutted during the 1980’s and replaced by private (often ‘faith-based’) food banks and charities that rely heavily on the excess production of the producers of cheap processed foods, and subsequently used to stuff the  poor with their so-called generosity. While these efforts are (sometimes) well-intended, the message is clear: food banks ran by churches and other private institutions are not providing the kind of foods that poor children need to thrive, but instead give them an unending diet of chips, cookies, cakes and – to put it bluntly all the foods the educated middle class (whether left or right) tries to avoid.

The film’s point couldn’t be more clear. We are slowly killing a certain segment of our population and that, illogical as this may seem to large corporations,  is not in the best interest of our country over the long-term. Further, much of our current policy seems to have a certain hint of insanity to it. It is the result of a focus on the profit motive outside of other considerations that (used to be) the purview of common sense and rationality of mature (mostly male) leaders,  a type of wisdom and sense of social responsibility that does not seem to be a prerequisite for entry into some of the corporate boardrooms of the mega companies that create many of the foods we consume. Perhaps that can change.

The film lays out the debate in a bi-partisan way, and is an equal opportunity identifier of legislative stupidity and policy myopia.  However, it is mostly the Republican right, from Reagan forward, that gets the brunt of the blame for the current situation. To be sure, the solutions offered could  be a little more broad-based;  the film seemed (at least to me) to say ‘let’s re-institute the laws of 30 years ago’. I’m not sure that’s the best solution. For one, as the film notes we already have an extensive infrastructure of privately operated food banks in this country. Why don’t we influence those organizations to provide the best foods to the poor instead of just blaming them for the problem? Perhaps the food banks could work with farmer’s markets, for example, well-known for producing great food (although with short shelf life) and also becoming very wide-spread. It does appear that some ‘outside of the box’ thinking is already occurring  — at the preview screening I attended, a spokesperson for Plum Organics stated they were committed to providing high quality, nutritious (and probably processed with a relatively long shelf life) foods to children through a program they would set up.

Another obvious fact is that people are simply not paid enough money for their work. This fact is becoming (fortunately) more widely known: we do not compensate our lowest paid workers what they should be relative to the productivity increases we have seen as society over the past 30 years. Rather, those gains have been channeled (mostly) to investors. In short, we need higher minimum wages – much higher than we see today. And if a company cannot afford these wages, we need to create basic income mechanisms that make sure people are functioning at an acceptable economic level; based on current studies, that would translate to over $20 an hour for a full-time worker.

While the film may not have explored the full swath of solutions available (perhaps perceiving some of them as being political non-starters in these days of sequestration), this does not undermine the extremely important message it conveys regarding the ‘syndrome’ of hunger and food insecurity in a nation that is supposedly the richest in the world. I urge everyone who reads this blog to see the film: you will be changed and educated as a result.

More information about the film and what you can do to get involved can be found here.

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D.R. Thompson is an award-winning filmmaker, playwright and essayist. His latest book of essays, A WORLD WITHOUT WAR, is now available from Del Sol Press. You can email Thompson at info@nextpix.com and visit nextpix at www.nextpix.com.

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