For Some Americans, Finding A 'Place At The Table' A Struggle

Feb 23, 2013
Originally published on February 23, 2013 10:55 am
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There are more than 47.5 million people in America who receive some kind of assistance from the government, but what that statistic does not reflect is the number of people who make too much to qualify for assistance, but often don't make enough to put food on the table between paychecks.


BARBIE IZQUIERDO: The assistance programs in the United States are very hard to qualify for. It's like either you're starving or you don't get any help. But what defines starving? Like, if you don't eat for a day, are you starving? In their eyes, no, but in your eyes and the way you feel, of course.

GONYEA: That's Barbie Izquierdo, a single mother in Philadelphia. She's one of the three people whose story is told in the new documentary, "A Place at the Table." The film's co-directors, Lori Silverbush and Kristi Jacobson join me now from our studios at NPR West. Welcome to both of you.

LORI SILVERBUSH: Thank you so much, great to be here.


GONYEA: Lori, let's start with you. You had a personal experience that actually led you to work on this issue. Can you tell us about it?

SILVERBUSH: Sure. I was mentoring a young girl who was facing some challenges and I helped to get her into a school for kids with learning issues and thought that she was now in great hands and got a phone call from the principal of her school that she was foraging in the trash for food. What I didn't realize when I'd helped her get into this school was that she was now no longer getting sort of the one meal a day. She had been getting a free lunch at her old school, and this school did not offer that. And I had inadvertently made her hungrier.

GONYEA: There's a term - food insecurity - that I think it's - economist Raj Patel explains really well in the film. Let's listen to him here.


RAJ PATEL: A lot of people think there is a yawning gap between hunger on the one hand and obesity on the other. In fact, they're neighbors. And the reason that they happen often in the same time and often in the same family and the same person is because they are both signs of having insufficient funds to be able to command food that you need to stay healthy.

GONYEA: Kristi, is part of the problem that we don't believe people in America are hungry because so many poor people are overweight, as he describes here?

JACOBSON: Absolutely. You know, we discovered is that the problem of hunger is very much invisible in this country and, in fact, hidden in the bodies of those who are obese. And, you know, Raj explains it really well.

GONYEA: They're on a limited budget and the food that they can buy that packs the most caloric punch is the food that's worse for them.

JACOBSON: Exactly. And we saw that again and again no matter where we were; in rural areas, in urban areas and small towns.

GONYEA: So let's go to another person you feature, Leslie Nichols. She's a teacher in Colorado and she has a unique perspective on what some of her students may be going through.


LESLIE NICHOLS: Growing up it was difficult because I could see how difficult it was for my mother when she would return from the food bank. It was embarrassing. I remember I was in second grade and just remembering opening up the refrigerator for like the first time in my life and going, wow, I'm one of those kids, you know, that you hear about on TV or see about on TV. It was like there was like two carrots in the bottom of the crisper and I just remembered thinking, what are we going to do?

GONYEA: And she says today she can look at her students and see in some of them that certain look - maybe it's a distraction, whatever it is, that makes it hard for them to get through the school day.

JACOBSON: Yeah. And actually, you know, 17 million children in this country are currently food insecure, so you know, in the case of Rosie, the young girl that we met in Colorado, is a student in Leslie Nichol's class.


ROSIE: My auntie, she tells me to get focused and she told me write focus on one of those stickers. And every time I look at them I'm, like, oh, I'm supposed to be focusing. I start yawning, then I don't have - and sometimes looking at the teacher and I look at her and all I think about is food. 'Cause I have these little visions in my eyes. Sometimes when I look at her, I vision her as a banana, so she goes like a banana and everybody in the class is like apples or oranges. And then I'm, like, oh, great.

JACOBSON: In her case she was like fortunate enough that her teacher had a personal experience with this and was able to recognize the signs, and the real problem was that Rosie was going hungry. You have to wonder how many of the 17 million children are being labeled as a disciplinary problem or being made to feel like they're somehow responsible for their inability to function and be productive and learn.

GONYEA: Could it be that the country's simply going through an economic slump in recent years? Unemployment is high and that once things turn around, we may be able to get ahead of the hunger problem, that the economy will grow us out of it?

KRISTI JACOBSON: Well you know, Don, it would be so nice to think that and certainly the problem is a lot worse because of the economic conditions and the Great Recession added many, many more hungry people to the roles. But the truth is that the bulk of people who are on government food assistance have at least one working adult at home.

JACOBSON: You have to realize that there's a systemic issue here when people who are abiding by the social contract as we understand it, you know, they're going to work every day, they're raising their kids, they're doing everything the way we've been brought up to think is American and productive, and they still can't put food on the table. Then you're looking at a systemic problem and not something that's as function of just rough times right now.

GONYEA: That's Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush, co-directors of the documentary, "A Place at the Table." The film opens March 1st. Thanks to both of you.

JACOBSON: Thank you.

SILVERBUSH: Thanks so much for having us.


GONYEA: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.