On the Monday morning following one of Boston’s biggest snowstorms ever, with a snow emergency still in effect outside, celebrated New York-based chef Tom Colicchio is settled into a suite at the Hotel Commonwealth. Friendly and polite in person, the man millions of television viewers are used to seeing as the authoritative lead judge on the wildly popular competition cooking show “Top Chef” isn’t here to talk about himself or his food. He’s here with his wife, filmmaker Lori Silverbush, to highlight the shameful fact that in our country of plenty, far too many people don’t have enough to eat.
The hunger crisis in America is the subject of Silverbush’s new documentary, “A Place at the Table,” which she produced and directed with partner Kristi Jacobson. Colicchio is an executive producer and one of several hunger experts and activists who appear in the film. The powerful documentary, which opens in theaters (as well as via On Demand and iTunes) on Friday, draws attention to the little-known fact that nearly 50 million people in this country (including one in four children) don’t know where their next meal is coming from, a problem that’s all the more frustrating because the nation arguably has the resources to provide affordable, nutritious food for everyone.
“Understanding that there’s an issue and being very active and raising money is one part of it,” Colicchio says. “But once Lori started delving into it, we would discuss it . . . and we realized the problem is more pervasive than we thought it was and there are several ways to fight it.”
The narrative is told largely through the perspectives of three subjects: a young single mother in Philadelphia who grew up poor and is trying to do better for her two children; a fifth-grade girl in Colorado who sometimes has to rely on friends and neighbors for food and whose hunger is affecting her ability to concentrate in school; and an overweight second-grade Mississippi girl with asthma, whose health problems are attributed to a diet filled with empty calories, which is all her mother can afford. These stories are interspersed with commentary from policy leaders, nutritionists, teachers, doctors, and regular citizens affected by and fighting hunger. The sum is a comprehensive portrayal of the factors contributing to a problem that appears fixable.
Silverbush, whose 2004 feature-length drama about troubled teens, “On the Outs,” won a grand jury prize at Slamdance, says the idea for “A Place at the Table” came to her after she learned that a young girl she had been mentoring was going hungry. “It was having devastating consequences on her life,” the director-producer says. “At the same time, I was watching as Tom was doing all the fund-raising and raising unprecedented amounts of money, yet more and more people were going hungry.”
For years, Colicchio has worked with Share Our Strength, City Harvest, Food Bank for New York City, and other hunger-fighting groups. Inspired in large part by his mother, who ran a high school lunch program in his home town of Elizabeth, N.J., the chef was particularly invested in childhood nutrition, even testifying before Congress for increased federal spending on school meals (shots of his appearance are included in the film).
“The relief organizations are doing great work,” he says. “At some point you have to look at the systemic reasons why people are going hungry as opposed to just trying to throw money at it.” For the couple, Colicchio recalls, that point coincided with the moment that “Lori came home and said, ‘I have an idea for a film.’ Usually when I hear that I know we’re in for a couple of years of work; at least she is.” But Silverbush is quick to point out that their marriage is one in which there is no clear-cut line between personal and work life. “He knew, even though this was going to be technically my project with Kristi, my partner, he was going to be a part of it because, frankly, the work he was doing and the issues he was working on informed it so much.”
When Silverbush began work on the movie, three years ago, she was pregnant with the couple’s first son. During the course of filming and production she had another son, who is now 2. (Colicchio also has a 19-year-old son, now in college, from a previous relationship.) “I was passionately invested in what [her children] were eating and where the food came from, what was in it, what hormones were in it or not, whether antibiotics were used,” she says. “And I was constantly reminded from this new vantage of motherhood of what it must be like to not be able to feed your children. It was personally devastating in a way that I don’t think it would have been if I had not been having this experience at the same time.”
During the year they spent researching, she and Jacobson learned “there’s hunger in every single county in this country,” Silverbush says. They contacted groups across the US at the forefront of the fight against hunger. Many of the people in the film who were living with food insecurity were initially reluctant to trust strangers with cameras because of the stigma associated with their situations. Trying to portray the link between hunger and obesity, as the movie does through a community in Mississippi, was particularly challenging. But Silverbush explains that she and Jacobson were ultimately able to establish positive relationships with their subjects because they were introduced by people those individuals trusted. She also credits her partner, whom she describes as “a documentary filmmaker with a great track record of getting people with sensitive stories to open up.”
“A Place at the Table” is more than an eye-opening portrayal of hunger in America set to a soundtrack by T Bone Burnett and the Civil Wars. It’s also a call to action, backed by a social action campaign that Participant Media (“Waiting for ‘Superman,’” “Food, Inc.,” “An Inconvenient Truth”) created. The filmmakers and Participant, part of the production team, are building a national database that will offer anyone who sees the movie or visits the related website (www.take part.com/table) easy, practical ways to get involved; and they’re already working with people in Washington on legislation to address food insecurity. Everybody involved with the film believes, as Silverbush puts it, “This issue is fixable. We have the knowledge. We have the resources. We have everything we need to fix this. It’s our job as Americans to let our members in Congress know that we care deeply and it’s time for them to get on it.”
Like his wife, Colicchio is optimistic. He hopes that after seeing the film, “You’re left with the idea that ‘Hey, we can solve this.’ ” Though he says he doesn’t like the term “celebrity chef,” the multiple James Beard Award winner allows that his involvement will likely add to the film’s appeal – as will the appearance of Jeff Bridges, a longtime hunger activist.
“TV gives me a platform, and this is now how I choose to use it,” Colicchio says. “I’d rather be a chef-activist as opposed to a celebrity chef,” he adds, laughing. “I don’t mind chef-celebrity as much. But I’m a chef first.”