The 99%: "Finding North"

a young white woman holding an animal

This is the second of three posts on films from the 2012 Sundance Film Festival addressing inequality, poverty, and social class.

Finding North is a title so perfect it doesn't fully sink in until after you've finished watching the film.  The documentary by filmmakers Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush doesn't allude to it at any point during its 84 minutes (except in song lyrics during the opening credits), but it provides a powerful paradigm for the rest of the film: quite simply, any country whose citizens go hungry while there is enough food has lost its direction and must get back on course.  This might seem straightforward, but in a climate where Republican nominees call Barack Obama the "food stamp President" as a slur, it seems even the idea of making sure the American people have food has become a politicized one.

The film tells the stories of Rosie, a fifth grader in Colorado; Barbie, a single mother of two in Philadelphia; and Tremonica, a second grader in Mississippi. While the film stays true to the individual accounts, it doesn't shy away from the complex political issues behind hunger that affect all of us.

Farm subsidies, originally intended to help family farms during the Great Depression, are now sent mostly to huge agribusinesses that process corn, soy, and wheat—the staples of high calorie, low nutrition foods.  Thus, the cheapest foods are the worst for you.  Tremonica's mother points out that, for $3.00, she can buy 312 calories of fruit and vegetables, or nearly 4,000 calories of chips and cookies.

Like Tremonica's mother, Barbie also struggles to feed her children.  Her son suffers from some cognitive and speech delays, which doctors attribute to his nutritional needs not being met.  After facing unemployment, Barbie is excited to secure a job, only to find that her salary isn't enough to allow her to feed her children, but is enough for make her ineligible for food assistance.

The documentary also tackles food deserts (areas of the country where there are no full grocery stores within 10 miles), the close relationship between being hungry and health-related weight issues (to paraphrase expert Raj Patel, both can represent the lack of power necessary to command the nutrition one needs), and the inadequacy of school lunch programs (for which funding was recently marginally increased—with resources removed from food stamp allocations).

The most powerful argument of Finding North, though, is that charities such as churches, food banks, and individual donations do not represent a sufficient solution to the problem at hand.  One of the film's strongest moments is when Barbie, along with other mothers, travels to Washington to lobby for policies that will reduce hunger in the United States as a "Witness to Hunger."  Will fixing hunger cost money? Yes.  But it will also cost us the health and well-being of our citizens to ignore it.

(Notably, one audience member seemed to miss this point. After raising his hand to ask if anyone had thought of starting a Kickstarter campaign to support school lunch programs, the filmmakers passed the microphone to Top Chef Tom Colicchio, who appears in the film.  It seems that Chef Colicchio is a reliable go-to person whenever you need help setting someone straight: he reaffirmed the argument that government intervention was necessary to address hunger.)

One of the most heart-wrenching portrayls is that of 10 year-old Rosie, who lives with her parents and grandparents, all of whom work. Rosie eagerly awaits the food bank bags that arrive at her home each week and goes through them excitedly: peanut butter and Ramen noodles, held up like Christmas presents. She hesitantly shows the cameras into her room, which also serves as pantry, laundry, and bedroom for her sister (Rosie sleeps on a pillow and blanket on the floor), but proudly points to the flower she hung on the window to "make it nice."

Rosie has two dreams: that she can be an honor roll student (her teacher says—and Rosie admits—that hunger distracts her in the classroom, making schoolwork a challenge), and that the people from Extreme Makeover: Home Edition will come visit her family, tear their home down, and build a new one.

But, honestly, what other hopes should Rosie have? Why should she believe that happy endings come from anywhere other than television shows?  Why should she believe in the American Dream, when the country can't find a way to feed her—or the 50 million other Americans living with food insecurity?

Learn more about Finding North and food insecurity in the United States.

Previously: The Queen of Versailles, Undercover Boss and the Undervalued Worker

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This is a subject close to my

This is a subject close to my heart. I grew up on food stamps, despite my dad working 2-3 jobs to keep us afloat. After college, unemployed and unable to find a job, I was on food stamps for two years. Now, with a good paying job and healthy food on the table, I work at a school where 95% of the kids qualify for free lunches AND breakfasts. We managed to secure a grant that allowed for the delivery of fresh fruit/veggies 3 days a week. Most of the time, this is the only food the children eat-- there is no dinner to go home to, and weekends can mean no food until Monday. Although we do see many of our kids toting around small packs of ramen, which they consume dry. It's the only food most of their parents can afford. Consequently, large breaks that other children celebrate-- Winter Break, Spring Break, summer vacation-- cause our kids considerably stress. For the week leading up to a lengthy school break, fights break out, behavior problems worsen or arise, academic performance drops-- and its simply the stress of not knowing where their next meal will come from once school lets out.

Our school is doing the best we can, but there is no doubt in our minds that we need more resources and that hunger is a problem that needs addressing, and not by politicians wishing to dismiss it. If they want to do that, I urge them to come say it to my students faces.