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I admit that my initial motivation for seeing the documentary A Place at the Table stemmed from competition and curiosity rather than compassion. My third novel, published June 4, is also called A Place at the Table, though it’s a story about metaphorical rather than literal hunger. Still, I worried that this same-named documentary would overshadow my book. But within five minutes of watching the film, I saw that the human stories illuminated in it are far more important than my pre-publication fretting.
I don’t know what true hunger feels like. I’ve never grown weak or dizzy from a lack of nourishment. I’ve never experienced the long-term anxiety of knowing each month that I will deplete the contents of my refrigerator and pantry before receiving my next paycheck.
A Place at the Table (the movie) introduced me to several people for whom hunger is all too real. Rosie is a ten-year-old girl from Colorado who keeps a reminder note on her desk at school that reads, “Focus.” She fervently wants to please her teacher, but she has trouble focusing because of her hunger pains. Barbie is an unemployed single mother of two living in Philadelphia. She struggles to feed her kids while subsisting on food stamps. Her life brightens as she starts a job she loves, despite the low pay. But with the new job comes a halt to any government assistance, leaving her with even less money for food than she had before.
The film’s producers do a brilliant job of showing how U.S. food and farm policies have helped to create a culture of food instability for many Americans. One of the problems is that large-scale grain producers still receive government subsidies, despite the fact that these farms are profitable and in little danger of failing. Meanwhile the budget for SNAP (food stamps) is continually threatened.
These two issues might seem unrelated, but government payments to large farms actually have a direct effect on the food purchased by those receiving government assistance. Since growers of corn and other bulk commodities are granted cash payouts (growers of fruits and other vegetables are not), is it any wonder that the cheapest foods on the market are those laced with corn byproducts? And for families who live in “food deserts” (areas where there is little fresh produce at their supermarkets) many poor kids end up living on a diet of corn-based, processed foods. Ironically this diet often leads to obesity, which turns out to be hunger’s twin rather than its opposite.
A Place at the Table honors the people who run food banks and organize food pantries, yet throughout the movie those good people articulate the fact that private charities alone cannot solve the issue of hunger. Food banks are miracles for the people they serve, and I can think of no better charity to support. That said, the food banks of America cannot feed the entirety of our nation’s hungry people. But as a people we can change government policy so that the social safety network is protected while the direct subsidies granted to large farms are curtailed. Such policy change would be a wonderful marriage of progressive and conservative values: a dovetailing of compassion for those in need with cuts to unnecessary and irresponsible government spending.
I relate to the impulse to distance oneself from the vulnerable, rather than to sit with the overwhelming sadness of contemplating a young girl in Colorado unable to study because her stomach is growling. Sometimes to distance ourselves from feelings of sadness or frustration, we try to turn those who suffer into the villains. We tell ourselves that those who live in poverty must somehow be deserving of their lot. And because those who live with hunger are not exempt from sometimes making poor choices—as we all do—anecdotal examples of those choices are used as fodder by politicians and pundits who caricature those in need as members of “the taker class” in an attempt to dismantle the social safety network.
This movie is a sobering rebuttal to such cynical tactics. When people who are hungry are named, when their stories are told, when we realize that there are people in our own families and communities who are struggling with this very issue, compassion takes root and continues to grow.
I urge everyone to rent or download A Place at the Table the movie. As for my new book, I have faith it will find its place in the world, too.
-Susan Rebecca White
Susan Rebecca White is the author of the critically acclaimed novels "Bound South" and "A Soft Place to Land". Her third novel, "A Place at the Table", will be published by Touchstone / Simon & Schuster today. "A Place at the Table" is on the American Booksellers Association “Indie Next List” for June and was selected by the Southern Independent Booksellers Association (SIBA) as a 2013 Summer “Okra Pick". Susan’s debut novel "Bound South" received wide critical acclaim and was shortlisted for the Townsend Prize. "Bound South" was followed by "A Soft Place to Land", also critically acclaimed and a Target “Club Pick". A graduate of Brown University and the MFA program at Hollins, Susan currently teaches creative writing at Emory University in her hometown of Atlanta. During the winter of 2011 she was the writer-in residence at SCAD Atlanta. She has been a great supporter of the Atlanta Community Food Bank. She is married to Sam Redburn Reid, also an Atlanta native, meaning she and Sam both grew up eating Varsity hamburgers and riding the Pink Pig at the Rich’s downtown.
To enter to win, simply leave a comment on this post and answer the question:
"What has surprised you most about hunger in America?"
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Deadline: Friday, June 14, 2013 at 11:59pm EST.
Winner: The winners will be chosen at random using Random.org and announced at the top of this post. If the winner does not respond within 48 hours, another winner will be selected.
Disclaimer: This giveaway is sponsored by Susan Rebecca White and the Atlanta Community Food Bank.