Hunger in America: Call to Action, Heard from a Distance

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This post was contributed by Lorien MacAuley.

“Hunger does not breed reform. It breeds madness, and all the ugly distempers that make an ordered life impossible.” —Woodrow Wilson, 1918 

I recently binge-watched several documentaries about hunger (especially since they were all on YouTube or Netflix!). First, I saw that Virginia State University has produced Living in a Food Desert (2015), a film \about food deserts and more broadly, food insecurity in Virginia. I moved on to A Place at the Table (2012), a US-national film that delves into some of the nuances of hunger and political implications, and then on to Hunger in America (1968), a truly gritty TV documentary from CBS Reports, of only the type that could have been produced in the 1960s.

What astonished me was how shockingly similar these documentaries were to one another, albeit filmed almost 50 years apart. In Hunger in America (1968), they show hunger in many places and population, as they interview Latinos in San Antonio, Native Americans in a Navajo reservation, and African Americans in rural Alabama. I was surprised to see Loudon County, Virginia, now one of the wealthiest counties in the US, highlighted as a poor White area. The film shows images from Loudon County of tow-headed infants with sad eyes; a narrator explains the poor brain development of the children due to improper nutrition in Hunger in America CBS Reports Booklet 1968early childhood. Because the film drew connections to youth’s performance in school and the military, and called out ineffective government programs, Hunger in America shocked citizens, leading to wider political action towards eradicating hunger in the United States, including establishing the national food stamp program and broadening the school lunch program, which had “all but eliminated hunger” by the late 1970s.

A Place at the Table (2012) features several youths who exemplify different reasons our children need greater food security. A preteen girl with intelligent eyes and a winning smile is sent to school hungry, which is impeding her performance. A toddler may have slowed brain development due to malnutrition. An eight-year old is overweight due to starchy, sugary snacks being served as meals. The film also underscores that hunger is everywhere. Through these stories, the film weaves a tale of the effects of the nuances of policy. In the film, Marion Nestle, referring to the commodity purchases and tax write-offs that become food aid, declares that many of our lawmakers are “more interested in corporate health than public health.”

Living in a Food Desert (2015) also broaches the subject of politics in Virginia, and shows how challenging good policy can be, even when political figures are sympathetic to addressing issues of hunger. The film shows many civil society (nonprofit/volunteer) anti-hunger advances, with meager policy initiatives by comparison. Both modern documentaries also drew connections between food security and youth’s performance in school and the military.

So, for my part, I am left with a huge question. If Hunger in America led to such sweepingwelfare-rights-organization march political reform, and we are still making the same sorts of films, why are citizens not responding in political activism? These films present to us a nuanced and difficult challenge, but one that must be met. What will it take for citizens to rise up in democratic action for food justice reform, as they did in the 1960s and 1970s?


Lorien MacAuley is a PhD student in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership & Community Education at Virginia Tech. She works as a graduate research assistant for the Mapping Sustainable Farm Systems Project. 




Woodrow Wilson propaganda poster to popularize food aid to Germany after World War II (1918).

The National Welfare Rights Organization marching to end hunger. Photo from the Jack Rottier Collection (1969).

Pamphlet on issues of hunger after the ripples of the CBS Reports’ documentary, Hunger in America (1968).