The documentary is the Debbie Downer of film forms. Over the years, documentaries have evolved into an information-distribution service; a sort of Associated Press for bad news. The networks and great newspapers filled this role in the past, but, as we all know, profit-minded corporations have absorbed and gutted them, leaving them without the resources to produce the in-depth journalism they once did. That job has been outsourced to the independent filmmaking community.
We’re lucky documentary filmmakers have picked up the slack. The important work once done by H.L. Mencken, Dorothy Thompson and Edward R. Murrow is now ably carried on by advocate auteurs such as Alex Gibney, Eugene Jarecki and Davis Guggenheim. (Michael Moore shows every sign of having hung up his Tigers cap as a director.) Fun fact: Murrow helped pioneer the genre with 1960’s Harvest of Shame, which chronicled the plight of American farm workers.
The crisis explored in A Place at the Table also has its roots in the American agricultural system. Directors Kristi Jacobson (Toots) and Lori Silverbush (On the Outs) aren’t in the same league as the filmmakers in whose footsteps they follow, but their subject is just as significant. Employing a mix of talking heads, archival footage and animated infographics, the pair reveals the scope and causes of the nationwide phenomenon known as “food insecurity.” In a country that produces more than enough to feed all its citizens, the picture asks, how can 50 million Americans — one in six — have no idea where their next meal is coming from?
The answer, not surprisingly, is a combination of corporate greed and congressional self-interest. The government used to subsidize family farms. Now those same tax dollars — $20 billion a year — are gobbled up by “megafarming corporations,” enabling them to produce the inexpensive processed food that keeps those who rely on it paradoxically undernourished and overweight. The increase in childhood obesity, the film’s experts explain, is the direct result of financially challenged families having no choice but to raise their kids on cheap junk food.
While smaller farms growing healthy foods no longer receive subsidies, the big food producers make sure the money keeps coming. One of the film’s illuminating charts indicates their influence: In 2011, gun-rights groups spent $5.5 million on special-interest lobbying. Labor unions slipped $49.8 million under the table. Agribusiness, however, invested a staggering $124.7 million to maintain the status quo, a system one of the film’s experts predicts will have consequences far more dire than wider waistlines. “If we don’t change the direction we’re heading,” warns Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass), “this generation will be the first to live sicker and die younger than their parents.”
Some of the movie’s most trenchant observations come from actor Jeff Bridges, who founded the End Hunger Network 30 years ago. He notes that, while the American government has done little to address the crisis, the American people have responded with enormous generosity, as shown by the dramatic multiplication of food banks since 1980. Bridges injects a welcome note of levity amid the grimness as he reminds us, “Charity’s a great thing, but it’s not the way to end hunger. We don’t fund our Department of Defense through charity.”
A Place at the Table is a must-see dispatch from the front lines of this struggle. It’s packed with sobering statistics and infuriating facts — among them, that one in four American children is chronically hungry. But, in the end, the actor and veteran advocate best puts the problem in perspective. “If another country was doing this to our kids,” Bridges argues, “we would be at war.”