Here in the richest country on earth, 50 million of us — one in six Americans — go hungry. More than a third of them are children. And yet Congress can’t pass a Farm Bill because our representatives continue to fight over how many billions to slash from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps. The debate is filled with tired clichés about freeloaders undeserving of government help, living large at the expense of honest, hardworking taxpayers. But a new documentary, A Place at the Table, paints a truer picture of America’s poor.
“The cost of food insecurity, obesity and malnutrition is way larger than it is to feed kids nutritious food,” Kristi Jacobson, one of the film’s directors and producers, tells Bill. She and Mariana Chilton, director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities, explain to Bill how hunger hits hard at people from every walk of life.
“There’s no opportunity for people who are low-income to really engage in our democracy,” says Chilton. “I think they’re actively shut out.”
BILL MOYERS: Welcome. The summer blitz of blockbuster movies has arrived. Super heroes or lesser mortals with excellent motor skills are here to save the Earth from: super villains, asteroids, aliens or other disasters, natural in nature but probably induced by global warming.
Yes, it’s another summer of excess and escapism with the thrills and chills of Hollywood scaring us down to our popcorn, yet always with a happy ending. Meanwhile, back here in the real world, where we actually live, the best film of the summer isn’t an epic tale of horror or adventure but an eye-opening, heart-moving and mind-expanding reminder that millions of people in this richest country in the world, working men and women and their children, don't have enough to eat. The film’s called A Place at the Table and it's one of the best documentaries I've seen in years.
Fifty million Americans, one in six, go hungry. And yet the House of Representatives can’t pass a farm bill because our members of Congress continue to fight over how many billions to slash from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps. Once again we’re hearing all the clichés about freeloaders who are undeserving of government help, playing the system and living large at the expense of taxpayers. This movie,A Place at the Table breaks those stereotypes apart and shows us that hunger hits hard at people who work hard to make a living. Don’t miss this one, it’s real life.
With me is Kristi Jacobson, one of the film’s directors and producers. You’ve seen her work on public television, HBO, ABC, Lifetime, and other TV networks. Mariana Chilton is here too. She teaches public health at Drexel University and is director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities. She’s also founder of Witnesses to Hunger, a group featured prominently in A Place at the Table.
In this excerpt from the film, we meet a rancher and a police officer in Colorado, each struggling to make ends meet. Believe it or not, they have to rely on the charitable food programs sponsored by the church of a local minister, Pastor Bob Wilson.
ADAM APPELHANZ in A Place at the Table: About a month ago we had three officers, including myself, but however, due to budget constraints we’re now down to just me. It was always kind of a prideful thing that I never needed anybody’s help. Unfortunately, I haven’t received a pay raise in four years and what I used to spend on a month in groceries now gets me about two weeks.
I have utilized Pastor Bob’s food bank. The way it makes me feel, it’s, it’s very humiliating. Well I correct that; it’s not humiliating, it’s very grounding. The stereotype of food banks is always for the unemployed or the disabled, people that can’t go out and get a job. That’s not always the case. Sometimes in life you just get to points where you need a little extra help.
JOEL in A Place at the Table: Ranching is a good part of life. It’s a lot of work but it’s an honest, actually, it’s an honest trade. But the way the economy and everything has gone south, I have had to go find another job out of the house. So I work on the ranch from 7:00 in the morning till 3:00 in the afternoon and then at 3:00 in the afternoon till 11:00 at night I go down and clean the school.
It’s a good job. It’s close to home. There’s a lot that you worry about. Your kids is the main one and that’s part of the reason I did take a second job, is so I can help buy groceries and put food on the table for my kids.
Come on dogs…
BILL MOYERS: Welcome to you both.
MARIANA CHILTON: Thank you for having us.
KRISTI JACOBSON: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: So, a cop who doesn't make enough money to meet all of his food needs and a cowboy who has to take two jobs to help feed his children, are they truly representative or was this just a filmmaker's good luck?
KRISTI JACOBSON: Sadly they're not the exception, in fact they're very representative. When we were making this film we traveled all over the country and again and again met people who were working and trying to make ends meet but were not able to put food on the table. So I think what the sort of filmmaker's luck or hard work paid off in that these are people who might not be willing to share their story.
But we filmed in Collbran because it was a town where the pastor, Bob, was working really hard to remove that stigma that people feel around, around admitting and then getting help. And so that helped us because we were welcomed into the community.
And you know, I remember the first time I met the police chief and I met him first on the phone and then in person and I thought he's probably not going to share this story on-camera, but it's still important to understand. And then he said, "Absolutely." And that was really, really I think a victory for the film in that we were able to show this very important group that are experiencing hunger and food insecurity but that are not, it's very hidden.
BILL MOYERS: What do you take from their stories? Because you worked with a totally different population.
MARIANA CHILTON: I'm not so sure they're that different, that's the thing. I think that when you were saying before about stereotypes I think that in the press and our legislators have a certain stereotype about who's poor and who's not and this concept of the deserving poor. But the women that I work with through Witnesses to Hunger are very hardworking.
They're excellent mothers, excellent parents. They want the best for their kids. They're often working two or three jobs. Sometimes they'll have to work under the table in order to make ends meet, trying to find side jobs. They're hustling really hard.
And I see the police chief, I see the cowboy who's also taking on that second job. What I see is common among then is a loss of dignity in the work. You can actually work full time and your family is still hungry? There's a very big problem in this country that we are not valuing hard work like we used to.
BILL MOYERS: There's a young woman in the film who says quote, "Hunger could be right next door and you would never know because people are too afraid to talk about it." Why are people afraid to talk about it, Dr. Chilton?
MARIANA CHILTON: Well, I think there's an enormous amount of shame that goes, especially when… I work with moms of little children, young children. And there's an enormous amount of shame that they experience that they, may run out of money before they can get more food. And it really tests their sense of motherhood, their sense of citizenship, of belonging. And it's very isolating. And I think that when the moms that I speak with, they talk about when they were children they, too, were hungry and they were always told, "Don't talk about it. Don't let anybody know how hard it is. Always put on a good face. Always look good," you know, it’s about being able to be in the world and be treated with a sense of dignity and respect. So they would often hide their own experiences of hunger or hide the experience that they can't feed their own children.
BILL MOYERS: Do we sometimes pass hunger down as a legacy to the next generation?
MARIANA CHILTON: Oh yes, we do. It gets transferred from generation to generation. Now, it also happens that during an economic downturn when there are not enough good paying jobs of course hunger will skyrocket. But I think that when people don't realize that hunger is very damaging to children, to, especially to young children. Food insecurity affects the cognitive, social and emotional growth of very young children.
That means that by the time they arrive to kindergarten they're not ready for school. That means that when they're in school if they're hungry they won't be able to concentrate on what they're learning and they won't do as well on their math and their reading tests. That means they won't be as successful, won't get a good paying job so that when they have children they, too, will be poor. So poverty is an experience that's really seared into the bodies and brains of children.
BILL MOYERS: What happens to someone who gets too little nutrition early in life?
MARIANA CHILTON: Oh, it's extremely important. If you think about what's happening in the first three years of life the brain is growing so fast. They're the most important years of human development. So every moment those are the building blocks of good cognitive, social and emotional development. Neurons are growing and pruning and very active. 700 neurons are growing a second for an infant. It’s an important window of human development.
So any type of nutritional depravation during this time has a severe impact on the brain even if it's just episodic, even if it happens once or twice a month those are moments of lost opportunity to be able to interact with their family and their environment, to pay attention and to learn something new which helps to grow more neurons.
So again it affects the cognitive, social and emotional development. It creates a certain kind of a stress on the child that's very toxic. And we know that children who experience that kind of toxic stress can't learn as well, can't learn as fast. And you can turn that around with food assistance programs, with a program called WIC, Women, Infants and Children or the food stamp program. The best investment of our dollars in this country is investing in very young children and their families because again those are the most important times when a child’s brain is growing. So for every one dollar that you spend on a child you make seven dolalrs back when they become an adolescent. It's a beautiful investment.
BILL MOYERS: Kristi has a remarkable profile, portrait in the film of a young girl named, I think her name's Rosie…
ROSIE in A Place at the Table: I struggle a lot and most of the time it’s because my stomach is really hurting. My teacher tells me to get focused and she told me to write focus on my little sticker and every time I look at it and I’m like oh I’m supposed to be focusing. I start yawning and then I zone out and I’m just looking at the teacher and I look at her and all I think about is food. So I have these little visions in my eyes. Sometimes when I look at her I vision her as a banana so she goes like a banana and everybody in the class is like apples or oranges and then I’m like, oh, great.
BILL MOYERS: Tell me about Rosie.
KRISTI JACOBSON: Rosie is an incredible young girl. And I think that what struck me so much about Rosie is that her story sort of embodied, everything about this issue which is that while she's experiencing this hunger and food insecurity it's affecting her self-esteem, it's affecting her ability to learn which is very upsetting. But at the same time she has this incredible spirit which gives you this, you know some feeling of hope and inspiration. So she's just an incredible young girl.
BILL MOYERS: And that story is replicated in your experience?
MARIANA CHILTON: Oh, very much so, very common. And I think what people forget is that, you think you can somehow see hunger, you can't look at Rosie and see oh, she's hungry. So where do you see it? You see it in school performance, their ability to get along with others, their ability to pay attention for children of school age.
KRISTI JACOBSON: Attendance.
MARIANA CHILTON: And attendance. But also for really young children where do you see it? You see it in the increased hospitalizations, showing up more to the emergency room when they don't-- with preventable diseases, or preventable exacerbation of asthma.
This, you know, if we could think about poverty during childhood as a type of a disease, if we could pay as much attention to poverty for children as we pay attention to infectious disease we might be able to do something in this country.
BILL MOYERS: The film makes dramatically clear the relationship between malnutrition and obesity.
MISS. CHILDREN’S HEALTH PROJECT NURSE in A Place at the Table: Step up on there. Step up on the table right there and I’ll be with you in just a second. What grade you in?
TREMONICA in A Place at the Table: Second.
MISS. CHILDREN’S HEALTH PROJECT NURSE in A Place at the Table: Second? You’re in the second grade? How old are you?
TREMONICA in A Place at the Table: Fixing to be eight.
MISS. CHILDREN’S HEALTH PROJECT NURSE in A Place at the Table: Fixing to be eight… Alright. And you’ve got asthma? Okay. Do you ever have problems with shortness of breath when you’re outside playing or anything?
TREMONICA in A Place at the Table: I have to stop playing to take a deep breath.
MISS. CHILDREN’S HEALTH PROJECT NURSE in A Place at the Table: Okay. What did you eat for breakfast this morning?
TREMONICA in A Place at the Table: I didn’t eat.
MISS. CHILDREN’S HEALTH PROJECT NURSE in A Place at the Table: You didn’t eat breakfast this morning? Okay. When you get home in the afternoon do you eat a snack? What do you eat?
TREMONICA in A Place at the Table: Chips.
MISS. CHILDREN’S HEALTH PROJECT NURSE in A Place at the Table: Chips? What else, baby? What do you drink?
TREMONICA in A Place at the Table: Pop.
MISS. CHILDREN’S HEALTH PROJECT NURSE in A Place at the Table: Pops. Okay. Do you have any other snacks besides chips you could eat?
TREMONICA in A Place at the Table: Cookies.
MISS. CHILDREN’S HEALTH PROJECT NURSE in A Place at the Table: Kisses?
TREMONICA in A Place at the Table: Cookies.
MISS. CHILDREN’S HEALTH PROJECT NURSE in A Place at the Table: Cookies. Cookies and chips, okay... Well maybe you could ask mom to start buying you some – some carrots and some celery and maybe some apples. You could slice some apples up; that’d be good, hm?
RAJ PATEL in A Place at the Table: A lot of people think there is a yarning gap between hunger on the one end and obesity on the other. In fact, they’re neighbors and the reason that they happen often at the same time and often in the same family, in the same person is because they are both signs of having insufficient funds to be able to command food that you need to, to stay healthy.
MARION NESTLE in A Place at the Table: If you look at what has happened to the relative price of fresh fruits and vegetables it’s gone up by 40 percent since 1980 when the obesity epidemic first began.
In contrast, the relative price of processed foods has gone down by about 40 percent. So if you only have a limited amount of money to spend you’re going to spend it on the cheapest calories you can get and that’s going to be processed foods. This has to do with our farm policy and what we subsidize and what we don’t.
BILL MOYERS: Help me understand the connection between hunger and obesity.
MARIANA CHILTON: Hunger and obesity are both forms of malnutrition.
BILL MOYERS: Meaning?
MARIANA CHILTON: Meaning not, it means not getting the right kinds of nutrients for an active and healthy life. If you go back to the definition of food insecurity it means having enough food for an active and healthy life. So when people think about hunger they think, "Oh, it's just not enough food." But actually food insecurity which is a much broader term, much more precise, captures that type of experience where families don't have enough money for healthy and fresh food so they will, in order to stretch their dollar, they'll spend it on soda or on foods that have very high calories. Because they know that their kids are hungry, they have to be able to stretch their dollar in order to fill their own tummies and the tummies of their children.
They know it's not healthy, but they're just trying to figure out what the immediate, the immediacy of hunger. So they eat lots of high calories, salt, sodium. Those are the kinds of things that are not good for an active and healthy life. It's another form of hunger. So you can look at people who are overweight and obese and think maybe they don't have enough money for food, maybe they're anxious about where their next meal is coming from.
BILL MOYERS: You say in the film that there are 50 million people, one in six who are food insecure, who do not have enough good nutrition to thrive.
KRISTI JACOBSON: It's shocking that here in the wealthiest nation on earth we have this many people who do not have either access to healthy foods or nor can they afford it.
BILL MOYERS: What does it say that one out of every two kids in this country at some point in their childhood as I learned from your film will be on food assistance, one out of two?
KRISTI JACOBSON: I see a country in crisis. And it's a crisis that we need to address and we need political leadership and policies that tackle this problem dead on. And when we were making the film we looked to a film that aired on CBS in 1968 called “Hunger in America.”
CBS NARRATOR in Hunger in America: Food is the most basic of human needs.
KRISTI JACOBSON: That showed the nation shocking conditions and children that were starving right.
CBS NARRATOR in Hunger in America: But man can’t remain alive without food. We’re talking about ten million Americans. In this country, the most basic human need must become a human right.
KRISTI JACOBSON: And citizens reacted. And what they did though and part of this had to do with the reporting at the time, was they demanded legislative response. They demanded that their politicians take responsibility and address the problem. And I think that today we have, you know, every maybe once a year around the holidays there are portraits of the hungry in America.
But instead of pointing to political solutions they're often pointing to a charitable response as the solution. And I think that is a really also significant cause for how we have gotten to the point where one in six are food insecure.
BILL MOYERS: You have a sequence in the film that drives home the reliance on charity and the conclusion that it's not enough. Let's take a look at that.
JOEL BERG in A Place at the Table: The 80’s created the myth that A. hungry people deserved it and B. well we could really fill in the gaps with the charities.
JANET POPPENDIECK in A Place at the Table: And so we had a proliferation of emergency responses, soup kitchens, food pantries moving from literally a shelf in the cupboard of the pastor’s office to an operation with regular hours.
LARRY BROWN in A Place at the Table: Something changed during that period of time. There developed this ethos that government was doing too much and more importantly, the private sector is wonderful and let’s feed people through charity.
JANET POPPENDIECK in A Place at the Table: We have basically created a kind of secondary food system for the poor in this country. Millions and millions of Americans, as many as 50 million Americans, rely on charitable food programs for some part of meeting their basic food needs.
MARIANA CHILTON in A Place at the Table: That’s something that’s extremely important. The churches and the community groups that do hand out food are doing an incredible service to this country and to the children that are experiencing hunger, but that’s just a quick fix, that’s for today and tomorrow and maybe for next week. We call it emergency food? It’s no longer emergency food. This is called chronic use of a broken system for which people cannot be held accountable.
JEFF BRIDGES in A Place at the Table: Charity is a great thing, but it’s not the way to end hunger. We don’t fund our Department of Defense through charity, you know. We shouldn’t, you know, see that our kids are healthy through charity either.
BILL MOYERS: So Americans responded with "a thousand points of light" in the first Bush administration. But you say it's not enough?
KRISTI JACOBSON: Well, it's not enough because despite all of that, despite all the money that's being raised, despite the food drives, despite the proliferation of these food banks and soup kitchens we still have 50 million people who are food insecure.
And what we've found both during the making of the film and in fact since showing the film, you know, food bank directors repeatedly sharing with us, you know, "We can't do this alone. We need government to play its role." Because it should be an emergency food system, as Mariana says in the film. And it should be complementing government programs that really address the needs of the most vulnerable.
MARIANA CHILTON: I would like to really draw your attention to the impact that the emergency food system has compared to the government food assistance programs. What emergency food can do is about this much, about 5 percent of dealing with the problem, this much. What does the federal government do with the nutrition assistance? Food stamps or SNAP it's called, WIC, Women, Infants and Children, school breakfast and school lunch, after school feeding programs.
Those programs we know make a tangible difference in the health and wellbeing of children and adults. So we know that if families are receiving food stamps or SNAP Benefits their cognitive, social and emotional development is better. We know that they're less likely to be hospitalized.
The same thing goes for WIC. We also know that WIC can reduce the stress that moms often feel when they're a new mom and they're very poor. So these programs we know have a tangible public health impact. There's no research that shows what kind of impact the emergency food system is having. We know that when about 30 million children are being fed every day in this country through school breakfast and school lunch, that is magnificent. And those kinds of programs need to be protected and to be promoted.
BILL MOYERS: There's a young woman in the film, Barbie Izquierdo. She was a year looking for a job. She had food stamps while she was doing so. Then she got work. And yet as a result of getting work she no longer qualified for food stamps or subsidized childcare and her children could therefore no longer receive breakfast or lunch at daycare.
BARBIE IZQUIERDO in A Place at the Table: Anyone can sit there and tell you I’ve been through this, I’ve been through that, I got through it. Yes, I’ve been through this, I’ve been through that, I got through it, but if you’re open my fridge I’m there again. Five days into the month. And I’m going to be there next month and the month after that. It gets tiring.
When I was on food stamps I didn’t have to worry about my kids not eating. It was just how can I make it stretch, you know… I might have to take a little bit from this day. It was more about balancing everything where now we have nothing.
I literally have nothing left. Like I’m going to give them a Hot Pocket for dinner tomorrow like what am I supposed to do? What do I give them?
BILL MOYERS: What's happening there?
MARIANA CHILTON: First of all stress. Stress is very damaging to moms and kids. Secondly, you also see Barbie having the sandwich away from her kids.
So you have moms that will often scrimp on their own diets in order to feed their children. But what you see overall, the big picture there is that Barbie was working full time in those moments and therefore became ineligible for food assistance.
So what they-- what you see is what we call in the research world the cliff effect. So if a family makes just enough money to get themselves over the lip of whatever the income limit is they'll lose benefits that are actually very helpful to them and to their own children and to their health. So you can have a family kind of going up and up and say, "Oh, I'm going to take that extra-- I'm going to get a raise," or, "I'll work overtime."
They work just enough to fall over the cliff, lose their benefits and then they're worse off than where they were before. So we have a really big problem in this country with the way that we are looking at our wages and our public assistance programs and how they're interacting with each other.
KRISTI JACOBSON: And that scene was one of the most difficult to film. And both because of just, you know, the pain that Barbie was feeling and allowing us to capture, but also as filmmakers Barbie had gotten the full time job and so we thought this is the end of the film and--
BILL MOYERS: The arc of the story.
KRISTI JACOBSON: Exactly. And when this happened we were devastated for Barbie and thought what is this going to do to the story? Well, of course as filmmakers we have to follow the story. And I remember the conversation that we had with Mariana where we were talking about this and we were worried that it wasn't representative and then learned this is in fact so representative and a really important problem to expose. Because we need for these programs, if we're going to have them and we're going to fund them which is a different issue, they should be meeting the needs of the people who are using and benefiting from the programs.
MARIANA CHILTON: And in our research we know that food stamps do help to prevent hospitalizations, they do promote health, it does help. But the type of allotment is called the Thrifty Food Plan. The way that the government calculates how much an adequate meal or an adequate sort of thrifty food basket costs is actually inadequate for a healthy diet. So even if you have families that are receiving the maximum allotment, as if they had no other income, they still can't make ends meet.
BILL MOYERS: There's a nice twist in the film. When you're reporting on what it's like to live on food stamps and you have an interview with Representative James McGovern of Massachusetts who did his own research, as you do, into the subject.
REP JAMES MCGOVERN in A Place at the Table: I lived on a food stamp diet for a week along with Jo Ann Emerson from Missouri. We did so because we thought that the food stamp benefit was inadequate. Most of my colleagues had no idea that the average food stamp benefit was $3 a day.
I had my budget and I went to a supermarket and it took me an awful long time because you have to add up every penny and it has to last you for a week. And so I did it and I will tell you I, I was tired, I was cranky because I couldn’t drink coffee because coffee was too expensive. I mean there are people who are living on that food stamp allocation. And you really can’t. For us it was an exercise that ended in a week. For millions of other people in this country that’s their way of life; every day is a struggle just to eat.
KRISTI JACOBSON: Sadly Representative McGovern is one of few leaders and voices in Congress pushing to do the right thing here which is to protect and improve food stamps and other government programs.
He's an incredible leader, but he is even having trouble getting his members of his own party to support his efforts to protect these programs. And that's really troubling and upsetting.
BILL MOYERS: The road to reform always leads to Washington. And there almost every reform whether it's the environment or whether it's agriculture or food hits up against the power of big money to write the laws it wants and influence the politicians it needs. You found that to be the case, didn't you?
KRISTI JACOBSON: Yes, I think that, you know, I believe, and I don't think naively, that we Americans should be able to influence how our politicians vote on these issues. That's not happening right now. And the problem with this issue is that you don't always-- it's not so obvious necessarily how a politician is voting when it comes to programs that address food insecurity.
BILL MOYERS: There was a poll taken I think in connection with your film that found the majority of Americans actually were surprised to hear that 50 million people don't know where their next meal is coming from. And many of those polled just don't think of hunger as a pressing issue. Given your work on this how do you explain it?
MARIANA CHILTON: There's this concept that you can somehow see hunger, that we would know that there are hungry children if they were fishing around in the garbage can or if there were flies coming or they had swollen bellies and, you know, limp on the sidewalk. But that's not what hungry children look like. We don't see that in the United States. You might see that's severe starvation when you're dealing in times of war and massive drought.
BILL MOYERS: Somalia, the Congo, Sudan, all…
MARIANA CHILTON: So in the United States there-- it's children like Rosie who light up the room when they come in. It's moms like Barbie Izquierdo who's beautifully spoken, so brilliant. Her children are funny and enjoyable. And yet they're still experiencing food insecurity and hunger. So I think people are actually shocked "Well, I don't see it, so it can't be real." And they don't believe the numbers.
But what it is happening underneath is a massive crisis in human potential in the United States. Our kids are showing up to school not ready to learn. When they're in school they can't concentrate. You have kids who are food insecure when they're adolescents. They're suffering with stress and suicidal ideation. That's what we find in our research. How can we--
BILL MOYERS: Suicide ideation?
MARIANA CHILTON: Suicidal ideation, so it's thinking about, "Oh, what does it matter that I live?" It's thinking about killing yourself. These are very depressing and stressful experiences to experience hunger, to see your parents struggling with that and to struggle yourself.
So when you-- what's happening is that we are developing a whole half of the country overall is really left out of the public dialog. They are underpaid, undervalued, unhealthy. And we can prevent this kind of-- and we can prevent this.
That's why I think it's so important, what's so exciting about what Witnesses to Hunger is trying to accomplish is to make sure that people who know the experience of hunger and poverty firsthand are a part of the national dialog, that they're not silenced, they're not short of shamed over off in the corner, that they're actually front and center. They're the ones who can turn it around.
So we have to take back our democracy, be more engaged. And I think that a lot of people sort of in the middle who haven't struggled with hunger or poverty think, "Oh, we'll just let the government handle it. They must be doing the right thing," and, "There's no hunger," that's just called disengagement. We've got a big problem in our country with being engaged about what our politicians are actually doing for us.
BILL MOYERS: So you've tried to engage them. Let's take a look in the film at a very interesting sequence.
BARBIE IZQUIERDO in A Place at the Table: Everybody say, “Washington.”
WITNESSES TO HUNGER in A Place at the Table: Washington.
MARIANA CHILTON in A Place at the Table: Here’s the plan; at 11:30 the reception at the Senate. Senator Casey will speak, I will speak, Tianna will speak, Barbie will speak and every time that you have an opportunity give your ideas for change, for what you need for the success and healthy life of your kids, okay? These guys are the ones who make it happen.
BARBIE IZQUIERDO in A Place at the Table: I was the first mother of Witnesses to Hunger and I didn’t think anyone would take us seriously. But I’m here to let everyone know that just because we live where we live and come from where we come from doesn’t mean that we’re not smart. Doesn’t mean that we don’t have potential. Doesn’t mean that we do not want education. Doesn’t mean that we want to depend on welfare for the rest of our lives. I want the same hopes and dreams as everyone in this room for their children. We just need the opportunity to make it come true.
BILL MOYERS: Did they listen?
MARIANA CHILTON: I think they listened a little bit. They felt it a little bit. But it's not long enough, you can't just go to Congress and talk to legislators one time and they'll get it.
I think it's really hard to break through the cloud over our legislators. I'm not really sure who they're listening to except for people who have a lot of money and a lot of influence. So I think they're very touched by the personal experiences of a person who's poor, especially from a mom.
So I've actually seen Senate staffers get very teary-eyed listening to these stories and they say, "Oh, keep telling your stories, keep telling you think stories." But then they'll turn around and vote to cut food stamps. And that doesn't make a lot of sense. So I'm wondering who is it that's influencing Congress? Who's got their thumb on what Congress can do? And I think that there's just not enough people who are poor who have an opportunity to speak out.
I don't think they get enough press, they don't have, they're sort of shut out, there's no opportunity for people who are low income to really engage in our democracy. And I think that they're actively shut out as well.
BILL MOYERS: So bear with me though as I put on my horns and play devil's advocate. There are a lot of Americans who think that we're spending too much on food stamps and that the cost is out of hand. Your poll associated with your film suggests that last year alone the government spent $81 billion on this nutritional safety net as you call it, now SNAP, what we used to know as food stamps. And some folks say that is simply way too much and that we're creating a culture of dependency.
Here's Representative, Republican Representative Steven King of Iowa.
REP. STEVE KING: Handing out benefits is not an economic stimulator. But we want to take care of the people that are needy, the people that are hungry, and we’ve watched this program grow from a number that I think I first memorized when I arrived here in Congress, about 19 million people, now about 49 million people. And it appears to me that the goal of this administration is to expand the rolls of people that are on SNAP benefits. And their purpose for doing so in part is because of what the gentleman has said from Massachusetts. Another purpose for that though is just to simply expand the dependency class.
MARIANA CHILTON: All right, well, first of all I'm a researcher, so I like to base things on empirical evidence. There is no evidence that the food stamp program creates dependency.
Let me show you what this congressperson is doing. Basically they're pinning the problems that we have in this country on people who are poor. If you think about people who are poor really-- you have 80 percent of people who are food insecure are actually working. That means their wages are so low that they're eligible for food stamps.
So you want to talk about dependency in this country? Let's talk about corporations and businesses that pay such low wages that they depend on the United States government to add money to those wages through the Income Assistance Programs, like SNAP. So because if you take a company like Walmart, pays their workers so low that their workers are actually eligible for food stamps. Who's dependent on the U.S. government? I'd have to say it's Walmart is the welfare queen here.
BILL MOYERS: But if I were Congressman King sitting here I might say to you make a very convincing case and I believe that both of you are genuinely committed to this issue, but you know, 48 million people are receiving food stamps. Can't you see why some of my constituents in Iowa would be shocked by that and at that cost?
KRISTI JACOBSON: Well, I think it's also important to look at how many corporations and agribusinesses are collecting subsidies out of the same government bill, the farm bill.
Well, yeah, and I think that there is an ethos in Congress right now that assisting those individuals who need help via the food stamp program or WIC or school meals is big government and is going to put us into debt. But providing subsidies to large agribusinesses and big corporations is just business as usual.
And I think that we're looking at, you know, investing in our youth and investing in our future. And if it doesn't get to you, congressman, from the moral point of view that it's really frankly not okay to have kids like Rosie and Barbie's kids to the tune of 17 million of them in our nation-- well, what about the cost of not doing anything? Because the cost of food insecurity, the cost of obesity and malnutrition is way larger on the back end and the health care than it is to get these programs adequately funded and feed kids nutritious foods.
MARIANA CHILTON: If you think about what government is supposed to be doing, it's supposed to create the conditions in which people can make healthy choices and live an active and healthy life.
It's all about creating good conditions for us to prosper, right.
Somehow when we think about helping people who are poor, many of whom are working, it's there becomes this type of societal vitriol towards people who are poor as if they're not us. Well, actually people who are poor are all around us. Their children are going to the same schools oftentimes. We need to really rethink about who we are as a country, what does it mean to be an American. If you think about one in five of our children living in households that are food insecure, they're just as American as the rest of us, we need to really invest in our own country and who we are.
BILL MOYERS: You've been to Washington with some of your constituents. You've made your case. You're up against the interlocking power grid of big agriculture, big corporations and big government. What makes you think you have a chance of turning them around?
MARIANA CHILTON: The power of the human spirit. When you have a lot of moms who have had enough we can take over Congress and say we care about our children just like you care about your children. But we need more moms, we need more families to be able to speak up. I think that we need to take over, take back our democracy, take back our sense of involvement, of belonging, that this is our government.
This government is supposed to be working for everyone regardless of how you were born or where you were born or how much money you make. It's supposed to work for all of us.
We've got to figure out a way to just help the people who are in power to recognize their own sense of humanity and recognize that they are no different than Barbie Izquierdo, no different than Rosie, that their kids are no different than Rosie, that we're all a part of that same human family. Ultimately that's what we need to tap into.
BILL MOYERS: On that note thank you, Dr. Mariana Chilton, for your work and Kristi Jacobson, thank you for an extraordinary film. And thank you both for being here.
MARIANA CHILTON: Thank you so much.
KRISTI JACOBSON: Thank you.