Racialicious Review: Who And What Really Has A Place At The Table?

By Andrea Plaid

Via jonathanjphalperin.com

Via jonathanjphalperin.com

 

Taking a break from the Crush column to review one of my favorite kinds of movies–documentaries–but I promise to include a Crush alum to keep some continuity!

So, let me keep my promise: I saw CrushR Raj Patel in a celebrity-powered version of Food, Inc., the well-regarded exposé on the effects of agribusiness and the US government subsidizing it on people living in this country and Latin America, the other night. The documentary, called A Place At The Table–as powered by Top Chef‘s Tom Colicchio (and co-directed and produced by Colicchio’s spouse Lori Silverbush), actor Jeff Bridges, and musicians T Bone Burnett and The Civil Wars–takes Food, Inc.‘s initial nugget of criticism on how agribusiness and its federal subsidies helps create food insecurity to create a solid framework on exactly how it’s done, from the Reagan-era dependence on food charities to fill in the needs of food-insecure USians as the administration cut federal spending on food programs (the film states that the US had 200 food banks in 1980 but now there are 40,000 food banks, soup kitchens, and pantries) to pricing many people living in this country out of being able to get healthy food (according to the film, the relative price of fresh fruit and vegetables has gone up by 40% since 1980, while the price of processed foods has gone done by about the same percentage) to business policies (like the fact, says the documentary, that we subsidize the basic ingredients in processed foods but don’t subsidize fruits, vegetables, and whole grains because the producers tend to be small producers as well as food suppliers and business owners determining that it’s simply not cost-effective to make fresh produce available to certain locations because they’re considered “out of the way”).

A Place at the Table also goes for human depth to explain the current the broken food system instead of Food, Inc.’s epic expanse of the system. A Place actually centers its stories on poor women and girls of color and a poor white girl: Barbie Izquierdo, a single Latina mother of two under-5-year-old children living in Philadelphia who fights to change the food system while helping others navigate the current bureaucracy to get themselves food and trying to secure food for herself and her family; Rosie, a white 5th grader living in Colorado whose family depends on their church’s charity and neighbors to feed themselves; Tremonica, a Black 2nd grader who lives in Mississippi whose being overweight, the film states, is due to the processed foods her store-manager mom can afford on her limited earnings.  (Keep that last phrase in your mind. I’ll come back to that.) Buttressing their stories with the facts and stats are food-justice experts and activists like Colicchio, Bridges, and Patel, who not only break down how and why the food system is so broke down but reframes the questions and answers about the lack of food. Patel sums it up:

Is it that the people are going hungry because of a shortage of food? No, it is not. The reason people go hungry is not because of a shortage of food, [but] it’s because of poverty. Then, all of a sudden, you’re in a different question. You’re not asking why is there insufficient food, which is this sort of beneficient question, but it turns out to be why people are poor–and right there, you’re in a political question…and one that’s far more difficult to answer and involves asking questions about power and about class and about inequality and the persistent inequality in this country. And that’s a much harder question to ask than the question about is there enough food in America, to which the answer is clearly yes.

Our legislators only think of the cost of hunger in America as being what it is that they spend on food stamps, but the genuine cost of hunger of America is way, way higher.

Bookending the film are richly colored, sweeping sea-to-shining-sea montages accompanied by Burnett’s and The Civil Wars’ Americana music, which invites the viewer to the circle of agitating for food justice for the sake of everyone living in various parts of this land.

However, for Place‘s considerate framing of the interconnected systemic issues of food justice, it still shares a deep flaw with Food, Inc.: the need to promulgate the disproven equation of poor diet = obesity = disease and, in A Place, visually ties it with only Black people’s bodies. In the film, there’s Tremonica expressing the wish that she’ll be able to run and jump with her classmates, a Black doctor and patient discussing his weight and diabetes (as evidenced by his swollen leg), and an extended shot of visually overweight Black people walking down the street as the factoid about Mississippi being number #1 in childhood obesity flashes on the screen. The equation rubs me the wrong way, but I checked my reality with Senior Editor Tami Winfrey Harris. She said:

Fat does not equal sick.

We need to unhook obesity from health. Poor diet may equal illness, but fatness doesn’t always equal poor diet or illness. I think our food system is jacked up, which leads to many of us being unhealthy. But you cannot tell whether someone is healthy or not by whether or not they are fat. I think a big reason we cannot make American’s healthier is that we insist on hooking health to body size…and body size influenced by out-of-wack mercurial beauty standards.

And the film doesn’t even begin to address the role of the beauty standard in food justice.

Tami concluded:

Bottom line: One reason Americans are unhealthy is that we cannot have a conversation about food and diet without the specter of fat bias, disinformation, and corporate interests fucking the whole thing up! Oh…and our shitty healthcare insurance system.

But, then, Tami added this piece of feminist analysis that is missing in the film:

Women have long been saddled with being primary preparers and servers of food in households. Now more women are working “the second shift”–that is working out of the house then coming home and caring for house and home. (Of course, WoCs and poor [white] women have been doing this.) We are over-burdened and still responsible for feeding folks and convenience foods make that possible.
A lot of folks who genuflect to “slow food” and “cook like your grandmother did” don’t take into account who is cooking…or that after I work all damn day and commute from the city to the ‘burbs, I don’t have time to lay out a meal like my grandmother did…neither does the single mom working two jobs.
And they make cooking this way–”healthy”–and keeping “healthy” (i.e. skinny) a moral imperative that ends up shaming people.
This shaming, which–along with the lack of more environmental justice activists of color to join Patel in the discussion–is what keeps A Place At The Table from being a doc that I’d want on my shelf.
  • Kendra

    Haven’t seen this documentary yet, but THANK YOU for this excellent piece. The food justice movement needs to keep stepping up its game.