“A Place At The Table” is an important new documentary about the problem of hunger right here in the United States. Fifty million people in the U.S.—one in four children—don’t know where their next meal is coming from and the problem affects families in urban areas as well as people in America’s heartland. It effects people who are unemployed, but it also affects people who are working. It’s a complex problem that needs addressing now. Directors Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush stopped by the SiriusXM studios with celebrity Chef Tom Colicchio to sit down with Ron Bennington and talk about the film, and the problem. Excerpts of the interview appear below.
* * *
Ron Bennington: First of all guys, I would say congratulations, but there’s so much of this film that I wish I wasn’t saying “congratulations” for getting the message out there. It’s a very tough problem that we have in America right now.
Tom Colicchio: Yeah, it is. 50 million Americans are struggling to put food on the table. And I would say that’s a big problem.
Ron Bennington: Struggling to put food on the table and then, even a lot of the food that we do get isn’t nutritionally what kids need.
Kristi Jacobson: Yeah. That’s absolutely true. We have a situation where many millions of Americans, by simply eating what they can afford – even if they’re not necessarily experiencing what we think of as hunger pangs and starvation, they are absolutely getting starved nutritionally. And it has really dire consequences to our economy, to educational outcomes, and to people’s emotional state. 50 million people. That’s not a small marginal group.
* * *
Tom Colicchio Explains How Government Subsidizes of Junk Food
Ron Bennington: Well, here’s one of the tough things too. If you look at – let’s say a lot of fast foods. A lot of kids eat a lot of fast foods. It is the bargain for most parents out there – that you can get this food so cheaply, but at the end of the day, Tom would you even say that this stuff is actually food? The way that we would actually think about food?
Tom Colicchio: Yeah. I guess it’s actually food. And you’re right. That fast food is cheap. You’ve got to examine the reasons why fast food is cheap. So, our tax dollars are going to subsidize corn, wheat, soy – all these things that go into highly processed foods. And so, we’re actually making those various items cheap and affordable. And so, it’s easy to demonize a parent, saying – you’re making bad choices. As if they actually had a choice. When you have limited dollars, you’re going to buy the cheapest calories possible. So, 3 dollars buys 3000 calories of junk. That same 3 dollars only buys 300 calories of whole foods.
* * *
Lori and Kristi Talk About the Myth of the Welfare Queens
Ron Bennington: The film brings up, back in the 1960’s when we decided to take on hunger in this country – we did a pretty good job and were on it fairly quick within 10 years. Now it seems like the country’s pulled apart in a way where we’re…in the last election, we heard about “makers” and “takers”. When you bring up food stamps in the media, you’re only hearing about people who abuse the system somehow – bought cigarettes or liquor. And that gets a nice big run somewhere. So at some point, we’ve got to get back to taking ownership and feeling pride about the fact that we’re helping people who need help.
Lori Silverbush: Exactly. And the food stamp program which is called “SNAP” is a nutrition program. And the goal is to help people who are in need at times – to get the nutrition they need, to be productive citizens. And also what I think…you do see the kinds of stories you mentioned in the media, but the vast majority – in fact, 80% of people who are food stamp recipients are working families. Have at least one working parent in the home. And many of those, are working full time jobs. So, I think that it’s really important for films like ours to get out there because it shows what’s really happening in America and not what the few would like us to believe.
Kristi Jacobson: And further to that, I think that the mythology around food stamps and SNAP are so pervasive. It’s like you hear a story about a lottery winner and they go and they buy lobster with their food stamps and frankly it’s a load of crap. Because what we’ve found is the data doesn’t support that. Food stamps have the lowest fraud rate of any government program. Less than 1% calculable fraud and yet for some reason, this myth persists. And I think it has a lot to do with what you said – the language of “takers” and that language is so so powerful, but it’s not born out by the reality. And the more we can be talking about that and getting people to understand and think about food stamps as an investment in people and not a hand-out. It’s a nutrition program. It’s an investment.
* * *
Lori Talks About Military Families Needing Food Assistance
Ron Bennington: But this becomes part of the thing that makes it a tough sell because this is a very complicated problem. Because it goes beyond food. And you brought it up – if you have a job in this country, you think shelter and food would be taken care of. That you would be making enough to do that. We have a lot of people working that don’t have health care taken care of, that don’t have their basic costs taken care of. Even people in the military have been on these kind of programs. So having a job is almost not even enough in America anymore.
Lori Silverbush: Yeah. I’m really glad that you said that because it really is true. Right now, one of the largest populations collecting food assistance are military families with an active parent overseas, actively serving. And we met a cop. We met teachers. We met people who are truly doing what most people would regard as their side of the social contract. So, the dialogue around it frankly inappropriate, as you point out. And I think that everybody…it is complicated. How we got here is complicated. But the truth is, there’s precedent in this country for fixing it. And back in 1968, CBS aired a pretty groundbreaking documentary called “Hunger in America”. And it shocked people because it showed 10 million Americans – at the time, that was the number, who were really going without food. And Americans thought – are you kidding me? We are the greatest nation on Earth. This is unacceptable. What is going on, on our politicians’ watch? That they’re letting this happen. So they sort of advanced the idea that government was really somehow failing these people. And called their senators, picked up the phones and within 2 weeks, had modernized and Congress had crafted the modern food safety net in bi-partisan action. So, we really…those programs worked. We nearly eradicated hunger in this country by the end of the 1970’s. And it was only with the Reagan Administration and the language started about welfare queens and people looking for a free ride. None of the people we met, who are on government assistance or SNAP are looking for a free ride. If anything, they would love nothing more than to be able to feed their families themselves if given a system that wasn’t rigged against that.
Tom Colicchio: Right. And now the system that we try to feed people with is more of a charitable response. It’s community centers. It’s churches. And they do great work, sort of providing emergency relief. But it was never intended to be this source of food and nutrition for people. And so we, in making the film, sort of realized that we need a government response to this or we can’t fix it. Because all the charity in the world…if you look at the amount of food banks set up, we went from having…
Kristi Jacobson: 200.
Tom Colicchio: 200 food banks, 40 years ago to having…
Kristi Jacobson: 40,000
Tom Colicchio: 40,000 right now. So, if that was the way to fix it, we would have fixed this problem. And so, we really need a government response to this.
* * *
Lori and Kristi Talk About How You Can Help With a Phone Call or Email
Ron Bennington: Yeah. It’s mind blowing. So, really we’re looking at a pretty big overall. Where is the government on this? Where is Obama? I know that Michelle goes out and does a lot of food type things and nutrition type things. Do you guys feel like they’re on the ball with this thing?
Lori Silverbush: Well, we actually have been talking to people. I think this administration would love nothing more than to focus on this, but they don’t get a sense that there’s broad public support for it. That’s what’s missing. And that’s what’s missing frankly with all our representatives. Because when we talk to people on the Hill, they’re saying – our phones aren’t ringing. We’re not texts. We’re not getting emails. And we’re not getting tweets on this. As soon as we do, I guess we’re going to have to deal with it. And that’s the role that anybody who’s listening to this, I hope you know that you have a crucial role in this. Don’t just think that because…because we are conditioned to think we can’t impact. We can’t move the needle on this. We absolutely can. And we’ve been told by a representative that if he gets 6 phone calls from his district, he goes – oh, I better start paying attention to this thing. That’s big. He might change his vote based on 6 calls. Because he’s assuming a couple thousand people feel the same way, but haven’t bothered to pick up the phone. So, the beauty of…this film was made with our partners, our participative media and they helped us craft a social action campaign that launches on Friday, tomorrow, with the film – that gives people with one click or one text, one email, they can let their representatives know – look, people, fix this.
Kristi Jacobson: And I think it’s important to know. You mentioned the First Lady and she has brought attention to just not the obesity crisis, but the crisis of food deserts in our country. And I think that we have a real opportunity here with this administration that we need to capitalize on. And I think we also have to recognize that the players in the game that has gotten us to where we are – are both democrats and republicans. And both sides have played a role in allowing this problem to not only exist, but grow over the past 4 decades. And so, I think we really need to call both parties to the table because this is something that we can solve, so let’s do it.
* * *
Ron Bennington: The film is “A Place At The Table” – comes out in select theaters and then On Demand, you can see it anywhere in the country, and then iTunes, Friday, March 1st. Thank you so much guys. I appreciate you coming by.
Tom Colicchio: Thank you.
Ron Bennington: And best of luck with everything.
Kristi Jacobson: Thank you so much.
* * *
“A Place At The Table” is in select theaters, On Demand, and on iTunes. Get more information at takepart.com/table. or text “food” to 77177.
You can hear this interview in its entirety exclusively on SiriusXM satellite radio. Not yet a subscriber? Click here for a free trial subscription.
You can learn more about Ron Bennington’s two interview shows, Unmasked and Ron Bennington Interviews atRonBenningtonInterviews.com.