One in every four children in America doesn’t know where their next meal is coming from.
It’s an issue that has often passed quietly under the radar and gets little attention on TV or in books. But a new film screened Wednesday night at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center, A Place at the Table, aims to change that by bringing the issue to the forefront of people’s minds.
The film, directed by Lori Silverbush, shines a light on the 50 million Americans who suffer with food insecurity on a daily basis.
Some of those victims, like Rosie, a fifth grader from Colorado who’s featured in the film, look fine on the surface. She’s thin but not emaciated, and her fear of going hungry often goes unnoticed. But to her teacher, who also starved as a young girl, her malnourishment is evident by her lack of concentration in school.
In many ways Rosie’s plight is mirrored here on Martha’s Vineyard, where beyond the view of wealthy summer visitors many residents also struggle to fill their plates.
“We have all the problems shown here in this movie,” said Betty Burton, president of the Vineyard Committee on Hunger. The screening was a benefit for the nonprofit organization which seeks to raise money and awareness in the battle against food insecurity both on Martha’s Vineyard and abroad.
Following the film, Ms. Burton moderated a panel discussion with Ms. Silverbush, Rep. Jim McGovern of Worcester, Dr. Mariana Chilton, director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pa., and Dr. Donald Berwick, a former Obama administration official.
Many of the “solutions” depicted in the film, including food banks and a food pantry, are in place on the Island, said Ms. Burton. But while they bring people together in valuable community service, these emergency solutions will never fix the problem of hunger, panelists agreed.
“The concept of charity is important,” said Ms. Chilton. “But it’s not going to do it. You wouldn’t want to fight a fire with a bucket brigade . . . If you are having an epidemic of illness, you wouldn’t want to host a fundraiser to get a vaccine.” Instead, the solution is policy, she said. “The answer is widespread government programs focused on the human being,” Ms. Chilton says in the film. She said the problem is “fixable” and said the clients of the welfare programs have valuable ideas as to how to do so.
The fact that the United States, the richest country in the world, still has hungry citizens is embarrassing and needless, said Mr. McGovern, who is featured in the film. “I am ashamed of that as a member of congress . . . Hunger is a political condition,” he said. “We have everything but political will.”
While Mr. McGovern supports the Obama administration, he said he is “disappointed with him on this issue.” Even Richard Nixon acted more to prevent hunger when he expanded the food stamps program shortly after assuming the presidency in 1969, he said. “My name is McGovern and I am saying something nice about Nixon.” He urged the White House to take action before Mr. Obama’s term is up.
In the 1970s, poverty was virtually eradicated in the United States, largely due to the awareness raised by a CBS documentary, Hunger in America. While A Place at the Table will not receive the same wide release as that film, Ms. Silverbush says it has already drummed up activism.
“Young people are getting incredibly activated by this,” she said. The film has yet to be screened widely at community centers and schools. “I think it’s still a chapter that’s being written,” she said. She urged audience members to speak out, contact their representatives in Congress, and counter misinformation about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). “An informed electorate is unstoppable,” she said.
The time to speak out is now, said panelists. A Republican bill that will be introduced to the House of Representatives as early as next month threatens to cut as much as 40 billion from the program over 10 years.
In the film single mother Barbara (Barbie) Izquierdo, an anti-hunger activist, rejoices at landing a full-time job, but later discovers that she no longer qualifies for food stamps. A cut to the family’s empty refrigerator shows she is again struggling to feed her two children.
But even those who do qualify find that they cannot stretch the dollars to feed themselves throughout the month. Supplemental Assistance benefits, or SNAP, provide about $4.80 to cover daily food costs; not nearly enough to purchase healthy, fresh foods. Ms. Izquierdo is shown preparing pasta and canned ravioli; Rosie eats a lot of ramen noodles.
Dr. Berwick, who is currently running for governor of Massachusetts, spoke to the health consequences of malnutrition. Physical and mental health problems caused by malnutrition can limit the potential of young people, he said. He warned that as a consequence of hunger, Rosie might not perform academically and be unable to attend college.
Barbie’s son Aiden was diagnosed with immune deficiency and speech delay, which Ms. Chilton atrributes to malnutrition in the formative years. “Any kind of nutritional depravation can have lifelong consequences for a child,” she says in the film.
“If another country was doing this to their kids, we would be at war,” actor Jeff Bridges says in the documentary.
Last winter the Island Food Pantry served over 1,000 people, including 200 children, operating out of the Stone Church in Vineyard Haven as it has since the early 1980s. It opens for the winter season on October 16.