Few are aware that one out of every two U.S. children ends up on food assistance at some point growing up. That's why, as part of Hunger Action Week, the Sacramento Hunger Coalition is hosting a screening and panel discussion of A Place at the Table next week at the Crest Theatre, where the film will again screen later this month. SN&R spoke with Kristi Jacobson, one of the film's directors, to discuss the nation's rampant hunger epidemic.
Right away, in your film, you drive home one point: Hunger in the United States is not a scarcity issue, but a poverty issue. Can you explain why that is?
As you know, America is one of the wealthiest nations in the world. We have plenty of food and resources and infrastructure so that all people living here could be food secure. Instead, we have 50 million people who suffer from food insecurity.
When we set out to make this film, we just thought, there’s hunger, it’s affecting every single county and every single community, yet nobody’s really talking about it. It seems to be invisible. Why? How is this possible? In the process of making this film, we discovered rather quickly that it’s a political condition rather than one of scarcity of food.
Sacramento County is home to the capital of the eighth-largest economy in the world. And yet almost 220,000 of our residents suffer from food insecurity. Where is the disconnect? How can this be?
“How can this be,” I believe, is a function of a lack of political will to mandate that our politicians address this issue head-on. We’ve seen that, in the past, when the problem was brought to the public’s attention (with the 1968 documentary Hunger in America), it made the average American aware of the problem. People were outraged, and they directed that outrage towards the government taking responsibility and providing solutions.
Hunger isn’t a sexy issue, is it? It’s hard to get people to rally behind something that’s kind of this silent, difficult-to-convey problem.
There are two prongs to this issue: One is that it’s invisible. And even more than invisible, it’s in some ways hidden in the bodies of obese people, in the obesity epidemic. It’s almost covered up, in some ways. And then, as you said, maybe it’s not a sexy issue.
Hopefully, with this film, we’re engaging the electorate so that they can no longer say, “I didn’t know.” Once you’re a witness to the devastating lifelong consequences that hunger has on a child, that they carry with them for the rest of their lives—are you OK with that? Here, in America? That 17 million kids, at any given moment, are experiencing that and will carry that with them for the rest of their lives? Aside from the health and developmental and cognitive consequences, it can take a heavy emotional toll on kids and parents alike.
You take pretty big issue in the film with a guy who used to work in our town: Ronald Reagan. Tell me a little bit about his policies and how they affected the hunger issue in the United States.
I want to say that we recognized early in our research that both the Democratic and Republican parties haven’t acted in several decades to address this issue and ones related to it.
What happened in the ’80s—and remember, this began with Reagan and it continued as a pattern over many decades—the funding for these programs was cut. It was a time when Americans needed it most, and the programs were cut. We’re actually finding ourselves in a very similar place right now. We’re not out of the hardships that began in 2008. Many families are still struggling to put food on the table. Yet, as we speak, there’s a farm bill going into markup next week. It’s not insignificant to be here right now and to have the film come out.
The film addresses a lot of things on the federal level. What if we make things a little more granular: the state or city level. What can someone do to help ameliorate the situation at home?
First and foremost, let your elected officials—be they federal, state or local—let them know that this is an issue you care about, something you need them to address. Elected officials have told us, time and again, that the phone calls, the letters, they impact how they look at an issue.
Support the innovative efforts going on in the community around you. Support, for example, efforts to bring healthy foods into areas in your community where people don’t have access to them. The impulse to contribute to your local food pantry and soup kitchen is also important. There are people hungry every day.
Finally, talk about it. It’s not just invisible. There is great stigma and shame associated with it, and that has a lot to do with the misinformation that is out there about the federal food assistance program. This is not a welfare program as much as it is an investment in our nation’s potential. It’s important to move the conversation away from one of blame to a different one of blame, to accountability on the governmental forces that have allowed this problem to proliferate.
Sort of move it from “this is their problem” to “this is all of our problem.”
Exactly. And it just is. Even if you don’t agree with it from a moral perspective—financially and fiscally, it absolutely is all of our problem. To fix this problem would cost far less than the consequences of not fixing it in health-care costs alone. And that’s not even including the lack of productivity and the weakness in terms of national security. There are a number of reasons why this affects us all.
Sacramento County recently said that we’ve got almost 91 percent of those eligible signed up for CalFresh.
Wow, that’s great.
Yeah, but once people get signed up for CalFresh, there’s still this issue of how do we give them access to healthier foods, and how do we make it so that people will want to make the decision to buy it? As you said in the film, $3 of fresh fruit and vegetables gets you a lot less food than $3 in Top Ramen.
That is one of the biggest challenges right now. Any parent who needs to feed their kids is probably going to make the latter decision. One meal today vs. five meals this week is a tough call to make. I think it’s a combination of addressing farm policies, how we subsidize corn and other commodity crops, yet we do not subsidize fresh fruits or vegetables, which puts families in that situation in the first place.
We’re now going into several generations of families and kids who grew up in this environment where the processed food is cheap and therefore available and therefore widely consumed. So we have to address it on a federal policy level to at least get the price of fruits and vegetables to come down, and then to find creative ways to introduce affordable fruits and vegetables into our diets on a regular basis, especially when kids are young.
At many of our farmers markets, they accept CalFresh, and all of the vendors are from local farms. They also have this thing at the markets called Market Match, where if the recipient spends $10 in CalFresh money, they’re comped an extra $5 in fruits and vegetables.
That’s amazing, and I think that that’s exactly the kind of program that’s going to increase their access and affordability—which are the two missing pieces. And then, simultaneously, if you’ve got the education going on, at least we’re making progress while the men and women in Washington figure out that they can’t keep the status quo without not getting re-elected.