Interview: Director Kristi Jacobson Sets ‘A Place at the Table’

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CHICAGO – One of the strangest problems in the United States, the richest country in the world, is “food insecurity.” Millions of Americans, lost in economic or working poverty, can’t keep pace with their food needs. The new documentary “A Place at the Table” dissects this social problem, and is co-directed by Kristi Jacobson.

Using telling statistics and personal stories, Jacobson – with her co-director Lori Silverbush – sheds light on a problem that seems to be expanding rather than in control. Several problems associated with food insecurity – including obesity, inadequate school lunch programs and general nutrition – are increasing in an America that subsidizes corporation farming, but slashes aid to the poor.

Jeff Bridges
Actor and Activist Jeff Bridges in ‘A Place at the Table’
Photo credit: Magnolia Pictures

Kristi Jacobson is a veteran producer, and also directed a notable documentary in 2006 on her grandfather, the legendary New York City tavern owner Toots Shor (“Toots”). “A Place at the Table” marks the sixth film she has directed. recently spoke to her during a promotional swing through Chicago. You have a history of being involved in documentaries of social consciousness. What drew you to this film and subject, and what was the strategy on how to best communicate it?

Kristi Jacobson: What drew me to it was my co-director Lori [Silverbush], she had an experience in which she was mentoring a young girl in New York City. She realized over time that hunger was part of the girl’s life, and was affecting her negatively in school and in her behavior.

Lori is a narrative filmmaker, hadn’t done a documentary, so she came to me with the story and asked me if there was a documentary in it. I am drawn to these subjects, the untold stories about people who are not often heard. What compelled me to make the film was in the first layer of research, the statistics, which were shocking and upsetting. Secondly, it was when we started to talk to people, learning the real stories behind the statistics, it became clear there were lifelong consequences behind this problem, both physically and emotionally. That is what drew me in. We been having an ongoing debate about healthcare costs in this country, especially in the area of coverage for the poor. Why do you think the hunger crisis is not tied into the healthcare crisis, as your film rightly points out?

Jacobson: That was a question we asked ourselves often in making the film, and part of it is because hunger in this country is invisible. You don’t see it in people, and the link between hunger and obesity is not made public enough. As filmmakers, we didn’t know that in making a film about hunger we would also be exploring issues of obesity. But the link is undeniable, the costs are extraordinary and as a nation we tend to want to blame people. We want to blame the obese, and ignore the hunger problem because we can’t see it. And that is why the film is necessary, to say that there are systemic problems in this country that put people in the position of not being able to afford healthy and nutritious food. There is a survival of the fittest mentality in America, in which wealth and power are more admired more than charity for the least of our citizens. Why or how do you think that perception evolved?

Jacobson: We looked at how we got here as a country, in making this film. It revealed a lot about who we are as a nation, and certainly since the 1980s there has been a shift from the government’s responsibility to care for our own to the private sector, charity and faith-based entities.

Charity a important piece in the circumstance of the issue, but we need to look at it more holistically to solve it. Private charity also creates a scenario where people have to eat what they’re given and take what they can get. 50 million Americans rely on food banks, and that system is not enough. We need to understand, as a nation, just who are we and is this way of dealing with hunger okay?

A Place at the Table
A Family Struggles with Food Insecurity in ‘A Place at the Table’
Photo credit: Magnolia Pictures We as a nation are 150 years past slavery. How did the marginalizing of freed men and women through Jim Crow laws and segregation, in your opinion, contribute to the politics and stigma of food stamp aid in America today?

Jacobson: There is no doubt that race plays a role in these problems and issue. There is a general ethos, that has been around for a long time, that if you need help from the government, it is because you are somehow ‘less worthy.’ That is just not the case. If you look at who benefits from food stamps or SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program], and who goes to food banks, the majority have at least one working parent in the household. So there is misinformation and deep rooted prejudice that exists, that we hope the film can play some part in overcoming. Why do you think the average citizen will not get outraged when the banks get a 700 billion dollar bailout, perpetual wars drain our treasury and large agri-businesses get subsidies based on 1930s policies, but gets crazy when the image of the welfare queen using food stamps while on a cellphone is evoked?

Jacobson: That’s the million dollar question, really. There is a desire, again, to blame people that need help. We’re much more eager to blame a single Mom than a banker, who took down the entire world. Because the mainstream media doesn’t really present that comparison, it’s our job as independent filmmakers to get it out there. In the last presidential election, the Republican side emphasized a ‘maker vs. taker’ mentality. How can we as a nation change those attitudes, when the use of those debates create power in our political system?

Jacobson: What we’re doing is a major social action campaign, and one piece of it is called SNAP alumni. This is a range of people who have succeeded, but at one in their lives were on food stamps or SNAP. It’s important for communicators like us to get the word out, because everyone may come to a time where they might be hurting or they might need help. Because of the economic downturn, even people in the middle class are finding themselves in that position. It’s about de-stigmatizing these programs, and fighting back against the ‘makers vs. takers’ rhetoric, with real people’s stories that disprove those assertions. Again in your opinion, why do you think the average American doesn’t know about the culture of poverty, that contributes so much to the food crisis? You touched upon in your film, but how does the psychology of poverty contribute to the helplessness of the situation?

Jacobson: The scene in the film you’re referring to is about a single mother being labeled low income, and talking about having to stand in ‘that line.’ Again, it’s a notion that says poverty is a distant ‘them.’ I hope that those who watch our film will see that people who are hungry in this country are not to be blamed. Can you blame the working police chief in the film who needs food aid? We as citizens in this nation has to make sure that our collective voice speaks for all of us, and not disenfranchise the least fortunate among us. Their vote matters, and their issues matter. A quick question regarding your previous documentary called ‘Toots,’ about your grandfather, the New York City celebrity and popular tavern owner Toots Shor. What was the most positive and negative elements of his legacy that you personally learned while producing that documentary?

Kristi Jacobson
Kristi Jacobson in Chicago, February 13th, 2013
Photo credit: Patrick McDonald for

Jacobson: My answer is the same for both the positives and the negatives, because I find it in myself. Toots Shor had a deep, deep sense of loyalty that could be the greatest strength of any person and can also lead to one’s downfall. It was so much a part of who he was, and so much a part of why so many incredible people came running when I asked for interviews in association with the film. That deep loyalty can also force you to make bad decisions and have some negative consequences. So much of the era in which Toots Shor’s tavern was popular is now romanticized. What did you find behind that romantic notion of mid-20th century New York City?

Jacobson: When I set out to make the film, it was to tell Toots’ story. As we were editing it, when we couldn’t figure out why something wasn’t working, we realized this was not just the story of Toots Shor, it was the story of New York City. We had to tell both of those stories and give them equal weight in the film. That was a key discovery, and hopefully made it a better documentary. It is obvious in the breakdown of food politics in America, that money and profits for foodstuffs overwhelm the need to take care of the hunger problem. When will the wake-up call come? What kind of crisis will happen that will make that wake-up call necessary?

Jacobson: I think the crisis is happening now, and I hope our film and the campaign around it will be that wake-up call.

“A Place at the Table” has a limited release nationwide on March 1st. See local listings for theaters and showtimes. Directed by Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush. Rated “PG senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2013 Patrick McDonald,

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