Everyone should have 'A Place at the Table'

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Killingly - posted Mon., Sep. 30, 2013
(L to r) Jean Cyr, Shawn Johnson, Donna Grant and Kathi Peterson talk about the problems facing area food pantries and the people they serve. Photo by D. Coffey.
(L to r) Jean Cyr, Shawn Johnson, Donna Grant and Kathi Peterson talk about the problems facing area food pantries and the people they serve. Photo by D. Coffey.

A collaborative effort by four area non-profit food banks and the Connecticut Food Bank brought the documentary, “A Place at the Table,” to QVCC on Sept. 25. The film highlights the extent to which many Americans rely on food assistance programs. It tells the stories of three of them. In the process, it exposes the shortfalls of programs meant to provide temporary assistance, assumptions people have about hunger, and how policy decisions have led to more hungry Americans over the last 40 years.

The film opens with a shot of cornfields, a car kicking up dust as it travels a dirt road passing farmland, urban landscapes, mountains, trucks on a highway. Hunger reaches into every state. It hits those living in urban and rural areas. Fifty million Americans suffer from food insecurity; they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. One in four of those are children. “If another nation were doing this to our children, we’d be at war,” said Jeff Bridges, who appears in the film.

The documentary follows two children and a young, single mother. One of the children lives in rural Colorado. The other lives in the Mississippi Delta. The young mother is raising her children in Philadelphia. But whether black or white, young or old, urban or rural, their stories have glaring similarities. Those similarities point to a system that isn’t working, and a country that’s in denial about the extent of hunger in its midst.

The statistics are sobering. According to the International Monetary Fund, the U.S. ranks worst in food security among countries with advanced economies. Eighty-five percent of families with one working adult are food insecure. About 55 percent of those receiving food assistance are young families with working parents. More than 23 million Americans live in “food deserts,” where access to fresh, healthy food is scarce.

It’s one thing to hear an expert give the facts. It’s quite another to watch a child having a hard time focusing in a classroom because she is hungry - or to watch a mother prepare yet another meal of Spaghettios for her children - or to follow a child to a doctor’s visit and learn that poverty and obesity are inextricably linked in the hunt for calories. 

One in three children will come down with Type 2 diabetes in the U.S. In the Mississippi Delta, the highest rates of food insecurity go hand-in-hand with the highest rates of obesity in the country. Both are signs of insufficient funds. People stretch their food dollars by buying cheap food products, and those are mostly processed products. It’s no coincidence that while relative prices of food have gone up 40 percent since 1980, the price of processed foods has gone down 40 percent. Big agribusinesses that produce soy, corn, and sugar beets have reaped the rewards of farm policy subsidies at the expense of a population growing heavier and more unhealthy. Or so say some of the film’s authorities.

What’s more, farm assistance programs that began in the 1930s with the aim of helping small independent farmers have shifted to large agribusiness. At the same time, more and more Americans qualify for food assistance. That shift in demographics has led some to believe that a political solution is necessary and that it must take into account income inequality. 

Thompson Ecumenical Empowerment Group Executive Director Donna Grant is one of them. “As engaged as we are, as creative and collaborative and effective as we are at providing a safety net for people, food pantries will not solve this problem,” she said. “The whole living wage piece is huge.”

TEEG, Friends of Assisi in Danielson, Daily Bread in Putnam, and Project Pin in Plainfield provide food to those income eligible to receive it. That food bank equation amounts to approximately $3 a meal, for three meals a day, for three days, said Grant. It’s a supplemental program, she stressed. But it’s an important resource for people in northeastern Connecticut where lack of economic security and a high unemployment rate add to household stress. The idea that people are double dipping and misusing the system is a misconception, Grant said. “It’s not misuse. It’s survival.”

An impromptu discussion after the film focused on how people could help. Grant suggested that every time someone donated to a food drive, she call her state and local representatives.  “Ask them why you have to keep doing this one more time,” she said.

Contact numbers for lawmakers in this district include: U.S. Rep. Joseph Courtney (D-2) Norwich district office 860-886-0139, Washington office 202-225-2076; U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D) Hartford office 860-258-6940, Washington office: 202-224-2823;  U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy (D) Hartford office 860-549-8463, Washington office 202-224-4041.

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