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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.