By James Abro (Toms River, N.J.)
Yesterday afternoon I went to see the film A Place at the Table. A well-intentioned attempt to shed light on hunger and poverty in America and provoke social and political activism.
Okay, I’ll give you the fact that I saw it in the middle of the day (noon) and that it was showing in a new art-house theater in the town where I live, but still: I was the ONLY person in the theater. Fortunately, I knew the proprietress who allowed me a ‘private screening’.
A Place at the Table, was meant to be for the 21st century what the CBS documentary Hunger in America was to America in the 1970s – a shocking expose of hunger and poverty and a clarion call to do something about it.
It worked then and President Lyndon Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ programs all but ended acute and chronic poverty and hunger in America.
I covered this in a blog I wrote on March 12th, ‘The Predicament of Impoverishment in America’. Allow me to quote myself (hell, it’s my blog): “In 1968, CBS aired a documentary called Hunger in America. It awakened many Americans to the fact that a very large number of their fellow citizens were underfed and malnourished.
This led to significant legislative initiatives aimed at combating poverty and hunger in America during the late 1960s and 1970s.
Then, in 1976, came this ditty: “She has eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and is collecting veteran’s benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000.”
The ‘she’ is the infamous ‘welfare queen’ and the person making the lumpen remark would become president of the United States in 1980.
Words matter. And the remark marked a significant turning point in American attitudes toward their fellow citizens receiving financial and/or food assistance from the government.”
Okay, so that was then and this is now. It’s no longer politically correct to say things like that, but it’s still damn sure all right to feel that way – as many do. (We also didn’t have Fox News then, who can now couch those kinds of views in ‘subjective journalism’.)
A Place at the Table made a few salient and poignant points: The most dramatic one, for me, was a report by doctors working in inner-city and rural health clinics on the state of the health of the children they see. It is not only that the children and young adults are obese and malnourished from eating a steady diet of cheap junk foods, but that their immediate mental health is adversely affected as well as their long term physical health. In effect, we are creating a generation of people who will not have the mental skills to compete in the economy, and whose inevitable physical disabilities are going to devastate it. Nice job?!
The other two poignant moments in the film were how people partly responsible for this catastrophic domestic situation reacted to it. The first was the owner of a trucking service that delivers food nationally. His claim was that it is not cost effective to drive his ‘eighteen wheelers’ into small towns and inner cities. The camera then smartly showed small-town groceries with isles and isles filled with ring-dings, sugar-dusted donuts, and an incredible assortment of chips and candies… Those things are not manufactured in those places, so how do they get there? Someone is making enough money on them to do so. The fact: agricultural subsidies overwhelmingly favor the production of what goes into cheap-to-make and highly profitable processed foods, not fruits and vegetables. And that’s not going to change so long as lobbyists for those giant agricultural corporations and junk-food producers can pay politicians to maintain the status quo. The take away: short term financial gains are more important than the health and well-being of our next generations of Americans.
The third moment that struck me was the remarks made by a Senator opposed to increasing funding for child nutrition. The former Senator from Indiana (big agricultural subsidy state) Richard Lugar. I don’t mean to be unkind, but when he looks into the camera and says he doesn’t think there is enough money for this program, the expression on his face is as disingenuous as what you’d find on a Sear’s catalog mannequin, or – what it reminded me of personally – the robots they used to impersonate human beings in exhibitions about the future in Worlds Fairs. Fact: the money needed to fund child nutrition is miniscule compared to what was spent on any of these gems: the Bush tax cuts; the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; and the bank bail outs. Take away: this senator, and others like him, are not speaking from the heart or the gut; their lips are moving, but money is doing the talking.
As I was leaving the theater the proprietress asked me what I thought of the film. I told her I was tired of seeing movies about poor people; I want someone to make a film about the top 1 to 5% showing how they can remain so out-of-touch and insensitive to what is going on in their country.
I still do.