“A Place At the Table” reveals stark facts about food insecurity in U.S.

For the price of a few cans of food, I received a free ticket to a preview showing of A Place At the Table, a documentary examining the issue of food insecurity in the United States.  The movie was beautifully filmed; the musical score original. The facts were stark:

  • 50 million (1 in 6) Americans suffer from food insecurity.  Food insecurity is defined as being uncertain of having or unable to acquire enough food to meet the needs of the members in their household.
  • 17 million (1 in 4) children is food insecure.
  • 85% of the food insecure families have at least one working adult in the household.
  • 44 million Americans are on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs (SNAP- formerly food stamps). One of every 2 kids will be on assistance at some point in their life.
  • The average food stamp benefit is under $5 a day and a family of 4 cannot have an income that exceeds $29,000 a year to quality.
  • 50 million Americans rely on charitable food programs to meet some of their food needs. There are over 40,000 food banks, soup kitchen and pantries in the U.S. up from 200 in 1980.
  • While we subsidize agriculture that provides the ingredients for processed foods, we do not subsidize fruits, vegetable and whole grains. The price of fresh fruits and vegetables has gone up by 40% since 1980 while the price of processed foods has gone down by 40%.
  • The National School lunch program reimburses schools $2.68 for a meal. After taking out costs for labor, administration, gas, electricity, custodial services, schools report they have between $.90 and $1 to spend on food.  (When $.06 was added to the reimbursement in 2012 those funds were removed from the food stamp program.)
  • Only 25% of 19-24 year olds are found fit for military service. One of the principal reasons is that too many of our young people are overweight.
  • It is estimated that the cost of hunger and food insecurity to the U.S. economy is $167 billion per year.

But as in the health care reform debate, the facts don’t give the heart (I was going to say “meat”) of the story. It is the personal accounts that resonate.

Rosie, a smiling, cheerful 5th grader in rural Colorado says, “Sometimes we run out of food so we try to figure out something, probably ask friends for food.  We get really hungry and our tummies just growl and sometimes I feel like I’m going to barf cause it feels bad. I don’t really know what to do.”   (page 5 of linked document).

Rosie’s teacher says that Rosie, and others in her class, have difficulty concentrating because they are hungry. The teacher begins taking food bags weekly to some of the families in the school. The bags include high calorie snacks and canned meals that have little nutrition. She says that is better than nothing.

Barbie, a mother of two young children, lives in the inner city of Philadelphia. She is part of the Witness of Hunger Program and is an articulate advocate for the TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) emergency fund and for the earned income tax credit. “…Just because we live where we live and come from where we come from doesn’t mean that we’re not smart. Doesn’t mean that we don’t have potential. Doesn’t mean that we do not want education. Doesn’t mean that we want to depend on welfare for the rest of our lives.”  (page 19 of linked document)

Barbie who was on food stamps, secured a job. Three months later she is deemed to have too much income to qualify for food aid.  When that happens she reluctantly feeds her children inexpensive, high calorie foods so they won’t be hungry.

Tremonica, a 2nd grader in Mississippi suffers from asthma and obesity and eats processed foods her mother buys.  Her teacher begins a program to introduce the children to fresh fruits and vegetables. But can her mother afford to buy a honey dew melon?

First lady Michelle Obama is shown calling for “quality, affordable food” for all our children, just as we health care advocates call for quality, affordable health care for all here in Missouri. We emphasize that a healthy child will do better in school and that a healthy adult will be a productive member of society. And a well fed child will have a better chance to succeed in school and a well fed adult is more likely to be a productive worker.

As in the health care debate, most of the adults with food insufficiency are hard working low income members of society. They do not want to be “takers”, they want to be “givers”.  The film demonstrated that taking food from pantries was humiliating and degrading for many.

Some of our politicians have encouraged charity as the answer to our health care and our hunger problems. In the health industry, “free” emergency room care is not the answer to lack of health insurance.  For those without enough to eat, food pantries won’t solve our problems.

We do not have a food shortage. We have a have broken food system, like we have a broken health care system.  As an advocate from Paraquad said during the Medicaid expansion kick off campaign, “The safety net is not safe; the safety net has holes.”

One in 3 children born in 2000 will develop Type 2 diabetes. Just think of those health care costs in the future.  It is good economics to fix the problem and see that everyone has adequate, nutritious food.  It is also the morally correct thing to do; everyone in the United States deserves enough to eat.

When advocating for Medicaid expansion in Missouri we agree with Governor Nixon that it is the smart thing to do for our economy and it is the right thing to do to help our uninsured.

It is time we do the smart and the right thing and fix both our food and health delivery systems.

A Place at the Table will be released nationally March 1, 2013.   A full description and information about the movie can be accessed here.