In The Red Wagon: Facing Hunger, a Montpelier third-grader named John Marotta is seen bringing donations to a soup kitchen. When asked how that makes him feel, the boy doesn't hesitate: "Proud." It's one of several choke-back-the tears moments in a documentary that examines Vermont's "food insecurity," a popular euphemism for not having enough to eat. Co-directed by Jim Ritvo and Dave Raizman of 132 Main Productions, the film is scheduled for two screenings at the Roxy in Burlington on November 3.
Although Hurricane Katrina's devastation of New Orleans supposedly spotlighted the issue of poverty, many Americans quickly went back to thinking about Tom Cruise or Paris Hilton. But economic hardship remains a chronic condition for people throughout the country who aren't necessarily affected by natural disasters.
On camera, Chittenden County Emergency Food Shelf director Wanda Hines explains that 33 percent of her customers are children, 21 percent single-parent households and 37 percent the working poor. Those categories certainly apply to Old North End residents Lori Hunt and her two young sons. Each week, they lug home a red Flexible Flyer full of donated groceries to supplement their limited menu.
"They're not here because they want to be here," Hines says about those who turn to her agency for help, a demographic that cuts across all walks of life. "They're my neighbors. They're your neighbors."
A senior citizen acknowledges that she can't get by on her pension and disability benefits alone. Another woman mentions the familiar fear of always being "one paycheck away" from collapse. In the Randolph area, 200 jobs were lost when two industrial plants closed during the last few years; the area's food shelf soon began to see a more middle-class clientele.
And then there are the smallest victims in a society without much of a safety net. About 60 percent of Hardwick Elementary School students qualify as low-income. They get a free breakfast before classes begin and participate in the innovative FEED (Food Education Every Day) program, which teaches them to grow and prepare healthy edibles as part of the curriculum.
There's a disheartening interview with Doug O'Brien, vice-president of public policy and research for America's Second Harvest - the Nation's Food Bank Network. He notes that the Chicago-based organization reaches 23 million folks "but the amount of donated food is decreasing." Apparently, not everyone is as proud as little John Marotta.
The genesis of Red Wagon seems to be personal revelation. "We were blown away by the magnitude of it all," says Ritvo, a 58-year-old Montpelier trial lawyer and former president of Woodbury College. "I discovered that the city has a soup kitchen serving meals every day of the week, even though Montpelier doesn't look like there's a lot of poverty. I wondered, 'How big a problem is this?' The answer: It's huge."
An estimated 10.1 percent of the state's households, or at least 67,000 people, are "food insecure," according to the Vermont Foodbank. The South Barre umbrella organization, which is sponsoring Thursday night's Roxy event, helped the filmmakers navigate a web of 300 affiliated local agencies that address hunger.
They tried to cover a wide swath of the Green Mountain State, encompassing Chittenden, Washington, Lamoille, Orange, Caledonia, Orleans and Windsor counties. "We ended up with 50 or 60 hours of footage," Ritvo recalls.
Before their cinematic efforts took hold, he and Adamant computer animator Raizman, 43, launched a cable-access show in 1999. "I was like Charlie Rose," Ritvo says, referring to the PBS host. "We talked to writers, artists, therapists."
The duo eventually left that endeavor behind, establishing their company six years ago to become "visual storytellers." Ritvo interviews and produces; Raizman operates the camera and edits. They pay the bills with work-for-hire, by videotaping professional training sessions, promotional messages, performances and other events.
Their independent documentaries are a passion, however. Future projects include On the Edge, about the state's health-insurance crisis, and Orphans of Addis, shot last year during a trip to Ethiopia and focusing on children whose biological parents have succumbed to HIV/AIDS.
A commitment to socially conscious subject matter fuels the 132 Main ventures. "I'm an old activist, so I admit to advocacy filmmaking," Ritvo says. "We put a human face on big topics."
For more information about the 4:30 and 6 p.m. Burlington screenings of The Red Wagon: Facing Hunger, visit http://www.vtfoodbank.org or call the Vermont Foodbank at 476-3341.