Whose Job is it to Fight Hunger in the U.S.?

[Listen to full audio from this New America NYC event here].

America is a nation of paradox. In a country where more than one in three people are obese, one in six are food insecure. A single state, Mississippi, leads the nation in both obesity and hunger. A Place at The Table, a documentary about hunger in America that premieres March 1, traces the stories of those who struggle with hunger across America. On February 25, New America NYC hosted a pre-release screening of the film and a conversation afterwards with co-directors Lori Silverbush and Kristi Jacobson, executive producer Tom Colicchio, and  Linda P. Fried, dean of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

In both the film and the conversation that followed, the filmmakers credited the impact of the 1968 CBS documentary special, Hunger in America, that galvanized Americans to act and spurred legislative expansion of federal food assistance programs. By the late 1970s, hunger had been nearly eradicated in America. Jacobson said the documentary was powerful because it both "squarely blamed the government," and insisted that "government leadership was part of the solution." A Place at The Table's directors hoped to do the same. Colicchio added, "We already have the policies in place that worked before and that aren't being funded [anymore]. We just need to start funding the programs we already have." Silverbush (Jacobson's co-director and Colicchio's wife) urged the audience to "shift the paradigm." According to Silverbush, we are too used to "charity as the solution to public health problems." Instead, she advocated activism and "entering the political sphere" as the most effective way to change the reality for those facing hunger and food insecurity. Food security is essentially defined as not knowing where your next meal will come from - though there are different degrees of severity.

That’s the thinking that led to the campaign that’s launching in tandem with the film's release.  Leading non-profits are rolling out a National Action Center "Take Your Place" campaign on March 1 to address the food and hunger issues raised in the film.

The Center will bring together a coalition of organizations - and citizens - agitating for change on food policy. Visitors to the campaign site will be able to track upcoming food legislation at the local, state, and national levels. "We're going to make this a voting issue," Silverbush declared.

An audience member posed one of the night’s more provocative questions: "Ultimately we will feed the children, but will we be feeding them the right food?" Most of the people featured in the documentary live in areas where they have to travel an hour or more to a grocery store with any fresh produce; many suffer from malnutrition. Chef Boyardee, potato chips, and white sandwich bread are dietary staples. Panelists echoed the audience concern about the powerful influence of processed food producers. They referenced this past weekend's New York Times magazine cover story as a sign of the growing mainstream consciousness around packaged foods and the influence of food companies.

Silverbush acknowledged "there is a role for corporations and industrial agricultural to play in this." But, she thinks the role of citizens and  government is much greater. "We live in a capitalist society…I'm actually not infuriated at the big food corporations that are taking advantage [of the situation]... because that is the system that we are letting happen. I'm kind of mad at our legislators who are enabling that and allowing policies to exist...that benefit the few at the expense of the many. It is their job to get it right." She continued, "If our elected officials are supposed to be worrying about the public health, well, that is on us to make them do it....How are we supposed to expect our government to get this right, and we haven't told them what is it is we expect them to do?”