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'Top Chef' host's new film argues hunger in America can be fixed

Celebrity chef Tom Colicchio's new documentary "examines the issue of hunger in American through the lens of three people struggling with food insecurity."

“I struggle a lot and most of the time, it’s because my stomach is really hurting. I’m just looking at the teacher and I look at her and all I think about is food,” Rosie, a fifth-grade student in Colorado, said in response to her teacher questioning why she wasn’t applying herself in the classroom.

Rosie is one of the subjects of a new documentary, A Place at the Table, which “examines the issue of hunger in American through the lens of three people struggling with food insecurity."

Produced by celebrity chef Tom Colicchio and directed by Lori Silverbush and Kristi Jacobson, the film wants to bring attention to the economic problems caused by the hunger epidemic in America and breakdown cultural stigmas associated with hunger. Colicchio and Silverbush joined Morning Joe’s Mika Brzezinski and msnbc’s Richard Wolffe on Friday morning to discuss the impact of hunger in America and the events that led to the creation of this film.

“One of the things we were most inspired by was in 1968 PBS aired a documentary, “Hunger in America” and it exposed the shocking conditions that in some cases Americans were starving in this country. And Americans watched this and they called their congress people,” Silverbush said. “They reacted with outrage and within two weeks, we had bipartisan action. Senators Bob Dole and George McGovern reached across the aisle and built our modern food safety net program. And frankly, they funded it enough that by the end of the 1970s, we had nearly eradicated hunger in this country.”

Silverbush noted that since the 1970s the “language and philosophy” surrounding hunger has shifted and now many Americans consider those in need of food stamps and food assistance programs, “lazy people asking for a free ride.” But that’s not the case and Wolffe expressed his anger over that stereotype.

He said, “hearing politicians suggest that food stamps are somehow  a failure of the government as opposed to a mark of compassion. We have hungry people in our own community and people think it’s a mark of failure?!”

Colicchio explained that one of the main purposes of the film was to “put a face to hunger.” About 15 million Americans suffer from food insecurity and, with the sequester, 600,000 pregnant women, infants and children under five will lose their benefits.

“People are sort of accustomed of thinking about hunger in terms of third world hunger—famine victims,” Colicchio said.  “And yet we have Americans that are walking around that look pretty much normal but they’re actually hungry and they're malnourished. It’s something we can fix.”

Silverbush talked about the enormous impact of the Supplemental Assistance Program (SNAP), formally known as food stamps, in the lives of Americans and emphasizes that no one should feel ashamed in having to use it.

“When you have an excess of 43 million individuals in this country who rely on some food assistance. We’re no longer talking about losers or slackers or takers or any of the language that people like to attach,” Silverbush said. “Food stamps are a tremendous investment in people. We are showing lawyers and doctors and teachers and celebrities and people who are making it today because at a certain time in their lives, they needed food assistance and our government supplied it.”

Brzezinski also pointed out that the U.S. government subsidizes 54% of commodity crops (cotton, wheat, corn, rice, soy); 15% of dairy and livestock and only one percent of fruit and vegetables, which makes it very easy for people to make bad food choices. She also explained how those poor food choices have led to the obesity epidemic growing in America.  Colicchio wholeheartedly agreed with her assessment.

“It’s easy to demonize someone for making a bad choice and feeding their kids unhealthy food—as if they actually have a choice—because unhealthy food is really inexpensive and healthy food is expensive and so if we move some of those subsidies over to fruits and vegetables, maybe we can lower the price and then they can actually have a choice and feed the kid healthy food,” he said.

He also explained that many of those currently using the SNAP program often have a working parent within the home so “we’re talking about the working poor. We’re not talking about people that are lazy.”

Another major problem contributing to the hunger epidemic are the food deserts that 23.5 million Americans find themselves living in. Food deserts are both urban or rural and occur when residents have to travel a great distance to get to a store to purchase fresh produce.

Wolffe explained that cooking and creating food may be one way to lessen the number of food deserts but Colicchio argued that some parents don’t have the luxury of time to do that.

Not having enough time to prepare healthy food also contributes to the obesity epidemic because parents often make the easy meal with the least amount of time constraints, Brezinski said.

“We also don’t have compassion for the growing numbers of morbidly obese Americans,” she said. “ Many of them who are extremely poor and don’t have access to healthy  food. These people are called undisciplined and it’s not. The system is completely stacked against our health.”

A Place at the Table will be in theaters, available on iTunes and On Demand starting on March 1, 2013. The film’s website also lists various organizations to help fight hunger and shares a way to take action to end hunger in America.

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