Food is as central to America’s idea of itself as freedom is. “Amber waves of grain” and “fruited plain” share top billing in “America the Beautiful” with “spacious skies” and “purple mountain majesties.” Conversely, an absence of food is an absence of freedom. A hungry person is not a free person.
It’s estimated that 49 million people in the United States either regularly go hungry or don’t know where their next meal is coming from. That latter condition, known as food insecurity, isn’t quite the same as hunger; but the line between them is porous — and insidious. Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush’s documentary, “A Place at the Table,” looks at a range of issues related to hunger and food insecurity: childhood obesity, poor nutrition, “food deserts” (areas without access to markets offering fresh, reasonably priced food), agribusiness, government food subsidies (70 percent go to 10 percent of growers), processed foods, and government food assistance programs.
Obviously, all of these issues are related. Just as obviously, there are a whole bunch of them and most are worthy of their own documentary. So “A Place at the Table” can feel awfully scattered. A tighter focus, or even just a voiceover narration, might have helped.
Jacobson and Silverbush try to provide an armature by devoting much of the film to three places. North Philadelphia and the Mississippi Delta town of Jonestown you might expect, as examples of urban and rural hunger. Collbran, Colo., you wouldn’t. It could be the set for a Marlboro ad — except that the food bank there does a land-office business.
The film includes interviews with numerous talking heads. Most are policy experts and activists. The most moving are with everyday people, like Barbie, a single mother in North Philadelphia, whose getting a job disqualifies her from food assistance, or Rosie, a fifth-grader in Collbran. There are also some famous faces: US Rep. Jim McGovern, of Worcester; Tom Colicchio, of Bravo’s “Top Chef” (he’s also married to Silverbush); and Jeff Bridges, long an advocate for anti-hunger groups.
They’re a parade of honorable, right-thinking people, and their presence befits an honorable, right-thinking documentary. But their presence also bedevils it. Everyone agrees that hunger is wrong. (One of the most effective bits in the documentary shows clips of every president from Reagan to Obama speaking of the need to end hunger in America — and superimposed on the clips are statistics showing the number of hungry Americans getting higher and higher.) Not everyone agrees, though, on what to do.
As morally engaged as the movie is, it’s also argumentatively slack. Precisely because it’s so easy to agree that hunger is bad, it’s hard to agree what to do. Or what’s hard is agreeing on how to pay for what to do. Instead of the occasional opposing voice, “A Place at the Table” offers cutesy graphics, bright and pretty visuals, and a tinkly folk score by T-Bone Burnett and the Civil Wars. Is the only thing less effective than preaching to the choir doing it slickly?