Documentary explores the hunger/obesity paradox—a question at the heart of Second Harvest’s evolving mission
In 1968, with 10 million Americans suffering from hunger, CBS News aired Hunger in America, a documentary that exposed the severity of the problem and led to national mobilization. School food programs and food stamps resulted, and hunger took a significant plunge by the late 1970s.
“Hunger was virtually eliminated in America,” says Willy Elliott-McCrea, CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank (SHFB). This proved that ending hunger was a matter of choice, he says.
But that positive trend didn’t last. Today, nearly 50 million Americans, including a fourth of all children, don’t know where their next meal is coming from.
A new documentary titled A Place at the Table claims that, as a country, “we can do it again.”
“The fact that hunger is as bad as it is in America today is also a choice in priority,” agrees Elliott-McCrea.
The crux of this challenge is that hunger has a different face—or, more specifically, a different waistline—than it did 45 years ago. When SHFB set up shop in Santa Cruz County in 1972, the task was getting starving children enough calories. Now, explains journalist Raj Patel in A Place at the Table, “The reason people are going hungry is not because of a shortage of food, it’s because of poverty.”
In the last 30 years, the cost of fresh produce has increased 60 percent, while, in the same period, tax subsidies for corn and soy have led to the cost of processed foods decreasing 60 percent, according to the SHFB. Empty calories in unhealthy foods are in bounteous supply, and are more accessible and affordable for those struggling to make ends meet.
This has presented the United States with a confusing reality: rising hunger and rising obesity among the same populations. But high rates of obesity do not contradict the also pressing problem of hunger; rather, they are “two sides of the same coin,” says Elliott-McCrea.
In Santa Cruz County, 24.4 percent of children are hungry, according to the nonprofit Feeding America, and one in four low-income children ages 5 to 19 are obese, says the Santa Cruz County Community Assessment Project.
“If you don’t have a lot of money and you have to stretch your dollars, you will buy inexpensive food, which is high in calories, high in carbs,” Elliott-McCrea explains. “This actually makes you hungrier. In the short term it creates hunger because you can’t control your blood sugar levels. You eat a cookie, chips, or [drink] a Coke, and you’re hungrier than ever two hours later because your blood sugar spikes and then it crashes.” This creates long-term hunger, he adds, by fueling a cycle of being overfed and yet malnourished. Add in resulting health complications (such as rampant diabetes) and medical costs, and the cycle of poverty and poor nutrition continues.
This has made combating hunger an increasing challenge: in addition to shifting its mission from providing emergency food assistance to “nutrition banking” (through programs like Passion for Produce, in which they empower low-income families to eat healthier), SHFB has to battle the widespread notion that increasing obesity means hunger isn’t an issue.
Called “the central paradox of hunger and obesity,” this complexity is underscored in A Place at the Table, which comes from the same team that brought us Food, Inc., and includes input from the likes of actor Jeff Bridges, Top Chef’s Tom Colicchio, and various experts. The Homeless Garden Project, along with SHFB, organized the local screening, which takes place at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, May 15 at the Del Mar Theatre.
Whether the documentary can do for the problem what Hunger in America accomplished nearly half a century ago remains to be seen, but Elliott-McCrea believes its focus on the root causes is a good place to start.
A Place at the Table plays at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, May 15 at the Del Mar Theatre. General admission $10.50. Learn more about the film at magpictures.com/aplaceatthetable.