Thanks to the efforts of healthy campaigners such as Michelle Obama, most Americans are aware of the obesity crisis in their fair land. But far fewer grasp an underlying paradox beneath that crisis: “A lot of people think there’s a yawning gap between obesity and hunger – in fact, they’re neighbours.”
So claims A Place at the Table, which explores the sad nature of that neighbourly relationship and the sadder fact that “one in six Americans say they don’t have enough to eat,” that an astonishing 50 million are “food insecure” and thus unsure of getting their next meal. They may not look hungry, they may even be overweight, but appearances are cruelly deceptive.
Blending the statistical evidence of the concerned with the anecdotal reports of the victims, co-directors Kristi Jacobson and Lauri Silverbush crisscross the country to plumb the tragedy. And tragic it is, especially the plight of children. Like Rosie, a Colorado grade-schooler who sometimes nods off in class, hungrily imagining that her fellow students are rows of apples or stalks of corn. Rosie’s mother has a waitress job that disqualifies her from government assistance but does allow for full-fledged membership in the burgeoning class of the working poor.
Of course, the issue here isn’t famine. Hunger in America is not about a shortage of food but an abundance of poverty. This is where the spiral spins downward. Obviously, when money is tight, families look to eat cheaply. Processed food is the least nutritious but also the least expensive, because its ingredients come from “mega-farming corporations” that receive major public subsidies. So the price of such food has fallen 40 per cent over the past few decades. By contrast, the cost of the most healthy food, fruit and vegetables, has risen by the same 40 per cent, since it tends to be produced by smaller farms that, ironically, are not subsidized.
The logic is pernicious: Poor folks are obliged to buy cheap food that sees them balloon in weight even while suffering from malnutrition. What’s worse, in the rural areas of the United States, there exist entire “food deserts.” For the big transport trucks that carry healthy yet perishable food, it’s uneconomical to stray far from the urban centres. Consequently, on the shelves of many small-town stores, potato chips and chocolate bars are plentiful, but a tomato is nowhere to be seen. Stuck in one of these deserts, a woman describes making a two-hour commute by bus to reach the oasis of a fully stocked supermarket.
Says the actor Jeff Bridges, a long-time and articulate soldier in the campaign against hunger: “It’s a problem that our government is ashamed of acknowledging. We’re in denial.” Proof of that denial can be found in the recent failure of Congress to fully fund the Child Nutrition Act – some money was added, but only by scooping it out of the food stamp program. That’s not to suggest Americans are an uncaring people. To the contrary, private food banks have proliferated wildly, from 200 in 1980 to 40,000 now. Yet that dramatic rise is a symptom of the malaise, not a cure. Besides, the food the banks distribute is often the processed stuff – after all, it’s cheaper.
The circle is indeed vicious, which may explain why the doc becomes a bit repetitious. But that’s a forgivable sin. What’s not, not even remotely, is a developed nation that treats the neediest of its citizens with flagrant disregard, refusing to reallocate its resources to solve a solvable crisis. Or as the good soldier Bridges more trenchantly puts it: “If another country was doing this to our kids, we would be at war.”