He might be known for his no-nonsense attitude as a judge on Top Chef, but Tom Colicchio has a softer side. In his new documentary film, A Place at the Table, viewers might be surprised to learn about a growing issue that faces the country today: 50 million people in the U.S.—one in four children—don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Food insecurity, as the phenomenon is referred to, is a problem that many might not be aware of, but has potentially devastating economic and health repercussions. Colicchio, who serves as executive producer on the film, talked to DuJour about his personal ties to the issue and how he hopes the film will raise awareness and help eradicate hunger in America forever.
What does food mean to you?
It’s my livelihood so it’s obviously very important [laughs]. Listen, I live comfortably and my children eat really well but I’m still not comfortable with the fact that 50 million Americans struggle to put food on the table. No matter how good I have it, I don’t believe we have it good. And I think that our country is only as strong as its weakest citizens – not its strongest.
How did you become involved with this film?
I’ve always been aware that there are issues of hunger in this country and my wife Lori Silverbush, [pictured left, one of the directors of the film along with Kristi Jacobson, pictured below] was mentoring a young woman who was often hungry and clearly food insecure. We tried to help the best we could, but Lori just came home one day and said, “You know what? I want to make a film about hunger,” and that was it.
School cafeterias feature prominently in the film. How did your own cafeteria experience shape your career?
There’s a great scene in the film when Miss Cherry [a school teacher in Mississippi who brings fruits into the classroom to teach her students about the benefits of healthy food since many don’t have access to fruits or vegetables in their communities] is teaching. She took it upon herself and said, “I’m going to go and teach this.” It’s really great. My mother managed the school cafeteria where I went to school, and when it came time for her to retire she said, “I’m not ready because I know a lot of the kids who are coming into my lunchroom for breakfast and lunch. This is the only meal they’re getting all day, and I want to make sure they’re getting something that’s healthy.” That just floored me, because I never thought about what my mother did in terms of taking care of people in a school cafeteria.
Hunger and malnutrition can have severe health issues. What are some of the repercussions of letting this go untreated?
If you look at it in terms of being fiscally responsible, I think it’s important that we feed people healthy food. Right now it costs us $113 billion a year in health care costs associated with things like obesity and heart disease, which are associated with hunger and malnutrition. The total cost to the economy is $167 billion per year when you factor in loss of productivity and things like that. So it actually makes sense to spend $40 billion a year to fix a $167 billion problem.
What is one thing that viewers can do to help solve the issue?
Engage politically. As Congressman Jim McGovern points out in the film, hunger is a political condition. I was with Marion Nestle (a leader in nutrition policy) about a month or so ago. When she is on the Hill lobbying and she mentions the food movement, they laugh at her. They say, “Well, no one is coming here and talking about it; therefore it doesn’t exist.” But the idea that an individual doesn’t have a role in government is a falsehood, so it’s important to engage politically. Call your representative or senator, and let them know that these particular issues are very important.
For more information on how you can help call 855-48TABLE or text (FOOD to 77177). You can also click on takepart.com/table.