Are We Prepared to Make a Place at the Table?
- Aug 22nd, 2013
A Place at the Table brings us face-to-face with hunger, obesity, and food insecurity in America by introducing us into the lives of three separate families.
First we meet Rosie, a second-grader from Collbran, Colorado. Rosie lives in a small house in a three-generation family of seven that is over the limit for government assistance.
Next we meet Barbie, a single mother of two kids from Philadelphia who reports it is very difficult to qualify for assistance and even more difficult to survive with it. Her food stamps usually last only about three weeks.
Our third face of hunger in the US is Tremonica, a second-grader from the Mississippi Delta who faces serious health issues because of the scarcity of healthy food options available to her family.
These three individuals and their families show us a “different face” of hunger – neither the malnourished child with a swollen belly in Sub-Saharan Africa nor the stereotypical “welfare queen” - but hard-working families from across the United States. These are people who need government and charity assistance in order to simply feed their families – something which many of us take for granted.
In technical terms, they face what is called “food insecurity.” They are among the 23.5 million people in the US who live in “food deserts,” areas without fully-stocked supermarkets and particularly without access to fresh produce and other healthy options. For these 23.5 million people, poverty means a lack of healthy food options, and that lack is linked to a variety of health concerns.
The documentary presents in a simplified and very understandable way how complex economic and political circumstances have evolved over time into the present-day systems that leave millions of people in the US struggling with hunger and food insecurity in the richest country in the world.
Hunger is widespread in the United States. The problem is structural. Over time, some of the governmental systems that were created as safeguards against difficult times have become part of the problem.
Case in point: the farm subsidies system contained in the Farm Bill that comes up for renewal every five years (and is being hotly debated in Congress right now). This system dates back to the Great Depression, when farmers were facing difficult times and needed the subsidies in order to even be able to move their crops on the market. During this period and until the 1940s and 1950s, small family farms were the beneficiaries of the subsidy program.
Now the vast majority of the annual $20 billion that the government spends on farm subsidies goes into the pockets of multinational agribusinesses and subsidizes the basic ingredients in processed foods. US consumption of processed foods is linked to obesity and other health issues.* Unfortunately, processed foods are often the only things readily available and affordable in low-income, “food desert” communities.
Likewise, processed foods for too long have been the main ingredients of the school lunch program that is funded by the federal government. At a current cost of $2.68 per child per meal, before overhead costs are taken out, the federal subsidized school lunch program has had to depend on cheap, unhealthy processed food. The Farm Bill reauthorization that is currently being debated in Congress would increase the subsidy for school lunch programs by 6 cents per student per lunch (which amounts to about $4.5 billion) to encourage more nutritional menus. But it would do so at a staggering cost: the Senate bill would fund this modest, incremental improvement to the school lunches by cutting $4.5 billion from the critically needed SNAP (food stamps) program! Needless to say, this system of safety nets is broken.
Another thing that A Place at the Table calls into question is the effectiveness of feeding ministries of all types. As it points out, although food pantries and other food charities provide critical assistance, charitable food systems will never be enough, often do not offer the healthiest food options (favoring pre-packaged non-perishable items over healthier and fresher foods), and do not get at the root of the problem. But unless and until we address the root causes of why so many people go hungry in the richest country in the world, the patchwork of charitable food assistance remains necessary.
A Place at the Table unmasks the dimensions of hunger, malnutrition, and food insecurity in the US and the complexity and inadequacy of charitable and governmental responses. But perhaps by design, the film leaves us with many unanswered questions. Now that we know that food drives are not the solution to hunger and that government food programs are shaped by special interest groups and political agendas, what are we supposed to do?
My hope is that, in posing these questions, the film motivates us all to want to know more, to want to engage, to want to become part of the solution rather than being part of the problem. The film points us to resources that we can peruse to continue to learn more and engage with these issues and to probe even deeper to begin to understand why there are so many people in this country that can't afford to buy food, let alone nutritious food.
The challenge posed by A Place at the Table rings especially true for us as United Methodists. We practice open communion, inviting all to Christ's table. But we don't always ensure that they'll always have a place at their own dinner tables or food at the table once they sit down. The Bible calls us over and over to be in ministry with those facing poverty, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give a drink to the thirsty, visit the sick and imprisoned, and so forth. Charity without justice – mere handouts without working to change the systems which create a need for the handouts – does not take us far enough into changing the lives of those who most need it.
*For the linkage between processed foods and obesity and other health-related issues, see Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us (Feb 26, 2013) by Michael Moss, and The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite (2009), by Dr. David Kessler, the former head of the Food and Drug Administration.
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Read and comment on a range of personal reflections and perspectives about poverty and Ministry with the Poor. Our goal is to attract diverse voices and points of view from United Methodists and friends, including people and communities living in conditions of poverty, other experts, religious leaders, community organizers, advocates, policy makers, volunteers, and all engaged in Ministry with the Poor.
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