Magazine | June 3, 2013, Issue

A Clown at the Table

America’s real food problems

Starvation is a three-step process. In Stage One, several hours after your last meal, your body starts raiding its pantry, metabolizing fatty acids that it stored up but (in this modern age of abundance) never expected to have to use. Over a few days, as your body enters the Stage Two process, called autophagy (the self-cannibalization of muscle), the rumbling stomach shrinks, and pain subsides. At Stage Three, a month or so after your last meal, organs break down, and eventually one of them gives out — usually the heart.

The documentary A Place at the Table, which was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance last year, follows the lives of a few Americans in Stage One and several in what we might call Stage Zero, a pre-hunger state known as “food insecurity.” Of the millions of people on this planet who are in the second and third stages — these include the kids with distended bellies and bony torsos — approximately zero live in the United States. Stage 2–3 hunger was eradicated in this country over 30 years ago.

But about 40 million Americans are still in Stage Zero, and the film is dedicated to publicizing their plight. We have a “hunger crisis” in America, the media say, and in no small part because of the filmmakers’ efforts, hunger has reemerged as the social-justice cause du jour decades after being forgotten. Last year, ABC News ran a “Hunger at Home” series, and more recently, newspaper articles have described a hunger catastrophe that is “looming,” vulture-like.

A Place at the Table is right about one big thing: According to the government definition of food insecurity (if for economic reasons you have skipped a meal, or worried about having to skip one, in the last month, you are food-insecure), we have 40 million food-insecure people in this country. And that’s too many, and more than most countries of comparable wealth. Never mind that many of them are fat. They still worry about food, and no one who doesn’t worry would trade places with them.

Unfortunately, the film is wrong about everything else: why we’ve gotten into this hunger mess, what typical American hunger is like, and what we should do about it. The anti-hunger movement in this country has been conned, and the makers of this film are part of the problem. The victims of food insecurity, in the film’s telling, are the working poor — Americans whose desire for healthy food would be satisfied with more food stamps; who eat junk food because no one in their neighborhood sells fresh veggies; who are victims of a political system that force-feeds them McNuggets and Ding-Dongs instead of the kale and quinoa they crave. In spite of its good intentions, A Place at the Table is a cornucopia of misguided pieties.

The greatest miracle of the modern developed world is something this film about food neglects to mention completely: the end of hunger. A social advocate from a century ago would stand in slack-jawed amazement at the fact that we worry about how fat poor people are. This development would be more baffling than the moon landing, more awesome than the atom bomb, more unexpected than the peaceful coexistence of Austro-Hungarians and Serbs. The mechanisms that produced this bounty are manifold, but they include, at a minimum, the massive productivity gains unleashed by science (thank Green Revolutionaries such as Norman Borlaug) and agribusiness.

But the film sees only gloom. Its statistics are at best distorted, and in some cases inexplicable. A lawman in Collbran, Colo., tells the camera that “what I used to spend in a month on groceries [four years ago] now gets me about two weeks” — which makes no sense unless he eats twice as much or started shopping at an amazingly overpriced store, since food prices have barely budged in the last four years. The film makes much of the rise in the price of fresh foods relative to that of processed foods since 1980. “Look what’s happened to the relative price of fruits and vegetables,” says Marion Nestle of NYU. “It’s gone up 40 percent since 1980.” Perfectly true, of course — but it is surely relevant that in absolute terms, food of all kinds is far cheaper than it was 30 years ago.

Processed food has nose-dived in real price. Fresh produce has followed a slightly more gentle descent, with mild turbulence. Consider the McDonald’s Dollar Menu (“Good Taste doesn’t cost a lot”), which can deliver as much as 2,150 calories — a little more than the USDA target — for $5, or less if you drown your meal in free ketchup. To gastronomes, these meals are abominations. But the Dollar Menu will sustain life. A burger in 1979 cost around $0.40, or $1.20 in today’s dollars. At my local McDonald’s, it’s $0.89, for a real drop in price of 30 percent. A pound of cookies is $3.70 today, which is 12 percent off its 1979 price. A pound of tomatoes has dropped about 22 percent in the same period, and an apples-to-apples comparison of Red Delicious shows that they’re now about 13 percent cheaper.

Jeff Bridges, lovably scruffy as the film’s celebrity spokesman, argues that the problems have “[gotten] worse.” That is true only if you measure from the start of the recession in 2008, which saw a mild uptick in food insecurity that was directly related to hard times in general. But by any objective measure, hunger has improved dramatically in Bridges’s lifetime. Between the last season of Sea Hunt (1961) and the theater debut of Tron (1982), the expansion of food stamps and school lunches essentially wiped out hunger in America. Robert F. Kennedy’s high-profile visits to Appalachian towns full of spindly kids could not happen today: No one in America is visibly malnourished, unless mentally ill or the victim of abuse.

In A Place at the Table, clips of each U.S. president since Reagan are subtitled with a ticker showing the number of “hungry” Americans at the time. The number ticks up year by year, from 20 million under Reagan to 50 million under Obama. Never mind that these figures refer to the food-insecure, not to the hungry. The rising numbers, in any case, give a false impression. The percentage of food-insecure Americans stayed pretty flat, at around 11 percent, from 1995 until the recession of 2008.

#page#Politicians make a mess of the statistics as well. The filmmakers interview an enterprising Massachusetts congressman, James McGovern, who embarked on a doomed effort to live off the “average food-stamp benefit,” about $3 per day. This sum will not sustain productive human life. “I was tired, I was cranky,” he says. “There are people who are living on that food-stamp allocation. And you really can’t.” McGovern doesn’t mention, of course, that the average benefit of $3 per day includes benefits to the working poor, who have income other than food stamps. If he had no income, he’d get more than $7 per day in Massachusetts, which is enough to feed and sustain a frugal individual. For $7, one could even get a day’s worth of calories from McDonald’s. A few years ago, people walked around this country visibly malnourished. Now the government will give you enough money every day to eat three meals in a restaurant.

A Place at the Table’s most compelling characters are Barbie Izquierdo, a working mother of two in inner-city Philadelphia, and Ree Harris, a working mother of four in rural Mississippi. (In the film, nearly everyone who is food-insecure is a member of the working poor. In fact, only one in three U.S. households that receive food stamps has even a single employed member.) These two families share a problem that the film presents as a structural flaw in capitalism, namely the existence of “food deserts.”

Food is everywhere in Philly and in Jonestown, Miss. But it isn’t nutritious. “I love fresh vegetables and fruits,” says Harris. “It’s very frustrating that they don’t have these here.” The film blames the absence of food on the market. “If I’ve got an 18-wheeler, I’ll deliver to Walmart and these other chains,” says Dr. Alfio Rausa, a state public-health worker. “But I can’t afford to take my 18-wheeler and go to these back roads [to deliver vegetables].” The film says Harris has to drive 66 miles round trip to get fresh vegetables.

She doesn’t. I called Frank’s Deli in Jonestown, and Frank himself confirmed proudly: “We’ve got fruits and fresh vegetables.” He admitted that he didn’t stock much of them — but that’s because people prefer to shop at Bryant’s, the other grocery in town, which has a bigger selection. And increasingly, he said, they prefer to drive 13 miles to the Clarksdale Kroger or Save-a-Lot. Bryant’s Grocery even appears in the background in the film, and under its sign it advertises “Fresh Vegetables.”

The urban poor fare no better, the filmmakers say. In one case not mentioned in the film, journalists and food-policy entrepreneurs bemoaned the status of Detroit as a city of a million people “without a supermarket” — just minimarkets stocked with processed foods such as chips and Hot Pockets. The claim was false, as Detroit writer Jim Griffioen proved in 2011 by Googling the terms “supermarket” and “Detroit.” In fact, there were several dozen supermarkets, including Kim’s Produce, an organic-produce market near Wayne State University in midtown Detroit. It opened in 2010, and it wasn’t just for the rich. Owner Kim Smith told me that a quarter of her customers paid with food stamps.

So the existence of food deserts is grossly exaggerated. But even to the extent that they do exist, we now have reason to doubt that they make people fat or malnourished. In a March 2013 article in Preventing Chronic Disease, Aiko Hattori, Ruopeng An, and Roland Sturm surveyed 97,678 Californians and found that living in a food desert — defined as a place more than a mile from a grocery store — has almost nothing to do with being fat. At most, living in a food desert added about a pound to the luxuriance of one’s waistline. For most people who live in food deserts, the extra distance to the supermarket made no difference at all.

This makes intuitive sense: Many poor people have cars, and those who don’t have cars have bus passes. Those who want lettuce can get it. In the film, we see Barbie Izquierdo go shopping, apparently forced to patronize a minimart that stocks Little Debbie “donuts.” Her kids sprint straight for the junk food, and she buys it, apparently against her desire to buy healthier food — if only there were some way to get it.

A trail of powdered sugar leads to the real problem. A Place at the Table suggests that food insecurity is in large measure a problem of inadequate access to good food. “There has got to be a way for fruits and vegetables to be made accessible and less expensive than they are now,” says Tom Colicchio, a Top Chef co-host (and the husband of Lori Silverbush, the film’s director). He praises a celebration on the White House lawn at which Michelle Obama conducts a teach-in about good nutrition. At the event, kids crunch down on fennel with the same delight they might otherwise reserve for Snickers.

#page#If access to fennel were the problem, then air-drops of fennel in rural Mississippi and blighted urban landscapes would be a cheap solution. But access is not the issue, and we all know why. Fennel is delicious and good for you. It is not, however, addictive in the way that junk food is, and there is no amount of celebrity endorsement that will make it so.

Research has increasingly revealed that sweets and fats are not merely delicious but also insidious — more like heroin or nicotine than like kite-flying or listening to music. We are a species of addicts. Kim Smith, who ran Detroit’s inner-city produce market with her husband Hollis, eventually closed her shop. She sold $5 lunch specials — creamy tomato basil soup, plus a sandwich — but people ignored her, drawn to fast food as if to methadone. “We had a hospital right by us, and every day we’d see the employees walk right past us and go to the McDonald’s,” she says.

Recently I visited my local McDonald’s, which coincidentally is the one nearest the epicenter of the American foodie movement, Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse. If any population knows good, healthy, food, it is Berkeley’s. The McDonald’s was, in a way, a microcosm of the American food landscape, where salads and burgers are cheap, where sodas are dangerously cheap, and water is free. No doubt many of the ultra-healthy avoid McDonald’s altogether. But for those who visited that night, the temptations of junk food were irresistible. I watched two dozen people approach the counter, and none ordered salad. Nearly all bought carbohydrate- and fat-rich sandwiches, a majority bought French fries, and about half bought soda. McDonald’s is the ultimate trial of our willpower — everything is accessible and cheap: ask and you shall receive — and it convicted every customer among us, including me, of poor self-control.

Attempting solution to the problem of food insecurity is simply to expand the food-stamp benefit, known as SNAP. Food stamps are widely credited with putting (healthy) meat on the bones of those Appalachian kids in the 1960s. So why not just expand the benefit?

There’s reason to doubt that that would do much good. After the Clinton welfare reforms of the mid 1990s, food-stamp qualification became more onerous, and by 2000, only 17 million people participated. But the standards were loosened, and now almost 50 million Americans use food stamps, a 194 percent jump in a single decade. As Jeff Bridges reminds us, the last decade has seen no progress in eliminating the remaining food insecurity in this country. Weirdly, giving people food does not seem to make them less food-insecure.

Other interventions deserve to be tried. Parke Wilde, a food economist at Tufts, points out that food-stamp benefits arrive only once a month, as a matter of federal regulation. Food-stamp families tend to spend their benefits early in the month and get hungry late in the month, when the benefits run out, thanks to poor planning or ne’er-do-well family members who waste resources. If food-stamp programs could parcel their assistance out every couple of weeks instead of once per month, they might impose better planning on recipients and alleviate that last-weekend hunger. So far, this option hasn’t been properly tested at any level.

Perhaps the strangest demographic choice made by the filmmakers was to portray only native-born Americans, when hunger in America is felt disproportionately by newcomers. “We deny food stamps to many of the population most in need,” says Neeraj Kaushal, an economist at Columbia. “For a rich country, the U.S. incidence of food insecurity is very high, and that’s largely because of the high incidence of food insecurity among immigrant families.” (She politely does not even mention the poor in her own native country, India, half of whose population subsists on a total daily income that is a fraction of the food-stamp benefit that left Representative McGovern “cranky.”)

Immigrants to the United States who have been here less than five years are ineligible for food stamps — a policy that might go some distance toward explaining why private charities such as Feeding America end up providing assistance to a whopping one in three Latino families in this country every year. Some immigrant families avoid contact with the government, even to pick up benefits they are legally permitted, for fear that authorities will notice and deport undocumented members of their household. The bluntest tool at our disposal, to ensure that recent immigrants don’t suffer here, would be to just give them food stamps. But of course we could just as easily make our immigration policy friendlier to skilled immigrants and decline to burden ourselves with the hunger of the world’s poor in the first place.

#page#Twice-monthly benefits, streamlined SNAP applications, and revised immigration policies are, unfortunately, the last of the low-hanging fruit, delicious though they may be. The big remaining question — how do we make sure society’s abundance is accessible, especially given that it appears that just giving it to people isn’t sufficient? — has defied easy answers.

Analysts of food insecurity debate whether the problem is ultimately one of logistics (we have the food — now how do we get it to the people who need it at the time they need it?) or one of anti-poverty (how do we get rid of poverty?). Wilde, the Tufts professor, says that we could theoretically just pay for the missing and potentially missing meals of the food-insecure, for a price of a few billion a year. But if you think, as he does, that the problem will persist as long as poverty does, then this solution won’t be enough.

“With the food-centered approach, the common theme is If only we had the heart,” Wilde says. “But hunger is a more daunting problem.” Whatever you think can be done to make people richer (tax cuts? tax increases?), that’s probably going to be your best guess about how to get rid of hunger. But given that we can’t agree on how to end poverty, we probably shouldn’t assume that the solution to hunger is any simpler.

The problem of sugar and fat is still gnarlier. Addiction to perfectly legal, near-poisonous concoctions such as Whoppers and Fritos is a public-health problem we have not come even close to solving. The film rightly condemns our agricultural policy for corn subsidies (even as it lionizes those subsidies’ champions, such as former agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack and Democratic senator Tom Harkin). But as Helen Lee showed in a perceptive essay this spring in Breakthrough Journal, those subsidies are a minor component of food costs, so getting rid of them can’t help much.

We could tax unhealthy food, Bloomberg-style. But taxes would hit working families hardest. Another option, and not an easy one, is cultural warfare — a mass effort to stigmatize junk-food consumption. José Bové, the activist farmer who hurls trash cans through the windows of fast-food joints in France, did a great deal to convince that country’s culinary Guevarists that McDonald’s is uncool. As someone who struggles to keep his burger cravings in check, I would not mind a little social stigma to nudge me toward nutrition. I wish I blushed when I walk into a Burger King the way I would blush if spotted walking into a XXX movie house.

The inconvenient truth is that the fault lies in ourselves, specifically in our wayward limbic systems, which are responsible for addiction. We are fat, overgrown lab rats, and we get too many reward pellets for too little effort.

In a revealing quote — revealing because he said it at all, and revealing because the filmmakers included it without irony or shame — Jeff Bridges muses that more hunger might be for the best. “What I’m hoping is that maybe increasing the problem [of hunger] is part of the solution,” he says, with a casual yet croaky air, half Dude and half Rooster Cogburn.

Bridges really seems to care. But this Leninist attitude toward hunger is cynical. The makers of this film care, too, but not enough to pause to wonder whether their falsehoods and omissions are noble, or whether they discredit the cause. At one point, the film describes the consequences of malnutrition for children, then quotes Barbie Izquierdo as she says food insecurity “affected [her adorable little boy] Aidan a lot.” The film then cuts to her description of Aidan’s worst chronic ailment, glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency (G6PD), an immune disease. The filmmakers leave the audience to infer that malnutrition put Aidan in the hospital. In fact, G6PD is a hereditary inability to process certain foods — especially fava beans — and completely unrelated to food insecurity.

The late Roger Ebert once called films that resort to this cheap tactic “child-in-terror movies,” and put them in a category with movies that get their thrills by imperiling the family cat. In those movies, however, the cat wrangler is on the set with a bowl of Whiskas — and in the world so inadequately described in A Place at the Table, there are still millions of kids and adults who feel real hardship because they aren’t sure how they’re going to eat this month. Real suffering demands serious consideration of the issues. Anyone seeking that kind of sustenance from this movie will leave the theater famished.

– Mr. Wood is a writer living in Oakland, Calif.

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