Film debates place of food stamps in farm policy

FoodNet in Lincoln, Neb., distributes expired, blemished and leftover food to people who need it. (File: Grant Gerlock/Harvest Public Media)
FoodNet in Lincoln, Neb., distributes expired, blemished and leftover food to people who need it. (File: Grant Gerlock/Harvest Public Media)

A Place at the Table” is a new documentary that ties the issue of hunger together with questions about funding for food stamps and farm subsidies, two issues playing a role in the current budget debate.

In their film, directors Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush paint a brutal picture of the hungry in America. It features a 5th grader from a poor family in Collbran, Colo., who has trouble concentrating at school because she fantasizes about food. There’s also a single mother in Philadelphia, Pa., who has a harder time buying food for her two children after she gets a job and earns too much to qualify for SNAP.

Besides putting a face on hunger, the film argues that farm subsidies are being misspent. Experts in the film argue the U.S. should shift support away from row crop farmers benefiting from high commodity prices toward people who struggle to afford the food farmers grow. Farm groups, however, argue agriculture is a gamble and the industry needs programs, such as subsidized crop insurance, to provide a safety net.

Lawmakers are talking about food policy as well. SNAP and farm subsidies are  part of the sidelined Farm Bill, but they still factor into the current budget debate in Washington.The biggest changes being proposed in Congress, though, go a different direction than filmmakers Jacobson and Silverbush propose.

The 2014 budget proposed by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, chair of the Budget Committee, would cut farm supports by $31 billion over the next 10 years. It would also cut SNAP by an estimated $125 billion.

That would happen by rolling back expanded eligibility for the program and transitioning SNAP to block grant funding for states beginning in 2019. Critics estimate 8 million people or more could lose assistance.

From the perspective of many Republicans, current policies have encouraged SNAP to grow without restraint. There is no doubt that enrollment has grown dramatically. 2012 ended with 47.8 million Americans in the program. Since 2000, when the average enrollment was 17.2 million, total spending on SNAP has risen from $17 billion to $78.4 billion.

Yet, as “A Place at the Table” shows, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is itself supplemented by a massive charitable food system led by thousands of food banks and church pantries. Hunger is a persistent problem for many Americans. A recent article from the Lincoln Journal Star describes the amount of work non-profits put into keeping a community fed, even in the heart of farm country.

For a country that prides itself on meeting the challenge of feeding a growing world population, there’s still plenty of room for discussion on how feed our own.

A Place at the Table” is distributed by Magnolia Pictures which also distributed the film “Food, Inc.”