I’d just finished watching tonight’s movie A Place at the Table when Justin Beiber tweeted that he’d experienced the

Worst birthday

when some of his underage friends were denied entrance into a London nightclub, where Beebs spent about $12,000 on drinks for his table. I don’t begrudge Justin Beiber the money he’s earned as child star, but A Place at the Table puts Beiber’s concept of “worst birthday” to the test for 17 million American children under 18 who don’t know where their next meal is coming from.

Food insecurity, not knowing if you will eat another meal, is a daily reality for over 50 million Americans, one in four of whom are children.  Our guests tonight, directors Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush  get straight to the ‘meat’ of the matter, addressing the social and economic issues that lead to food insecurity, while focusing on the lives of three people who must face a daily lack of food.

Rosie, a fifth grader, lives with six other family members in rural Colorado. Because her family members, including her mother, grandmother, and grandfather, all work, their income level is too high to qualify for food stamps (now called SNAP, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), but it’s far below the level needed to to provide enough food for the family. Like many in their town, including the town’s only policeman (the others lost their jobs due to budget cutbacks) they rely on a food bank. Several times a week a church pastor drives a long winding road with a trailer to the Food Bank of The Rockies in Grand Junction to pick up donations for the townspeople. The church also serves a hot supper once a week for over a hundred people. The sad thing is much of the food donated to food banks is nutritionally empty.

Barbie, a Philadelphia mother of two, knows the difficulties of making ends meet and providing enough food for her children. On federal food assistance, she can almost manage to feed her two kids; but when she gets a job, she makes too much money to qualify. And her paycheck runs out long before the end of the month. Her son Aidan suffers from learning disabilities and immune system disorders resulting from poor nutrition.

In rural Mississippi Tremonica’s daughter has chronic asthma and is obese. It’s not a coincidence that Mississippi not only has the highest rate of food insecurity in the U.S., but also the highest rate of obesity, something discussed by author Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved, in the film. Like Barbie–and millions of Americans–Tremonica lives in a “food desert,” where residents of lower income communities, both rural and urban, don’t have access to healthy, nutritious food because it’s not cost effective to deliver it to them.

Food insecurity in the U.S. had nearly been wiped out by smart policies and effective programs in the late 1970’s, until the economic woes of the early 1980s forced newly elected President Reagan’s administration to cut taxes and sharply slash social programs, just as the need for assistance was growing. This resulted in millions of hungry Americans, and their numbers have swelled over the decades.

Meanwhile, the cost of fresh fruits and vegetables has increased 40%, while the cost of “convenience food,” cheap junk food full of subsidized carbs and sugar, has dropped 40%. There are no subsidies for fruits and vegetables

The result: Skyrocketing obesity, diabetes, and malnutrition. Top Chef’s Tom Colicchio, one of the executive producers of A Place at the Table, explains that those government reimbursements are nearly the same today as they were in 1973; they break down to 99 cents a day per child. And as pointed out during recent Congressional hearings on school nutrition programs, we have a military draftable age population that is unfit for service. Even that fact that didn’t soften Republicans towards increasing funding for school lunches, instead of a $10 billion raise in funding, school food programs will increase by $4.5 billion over a ten year period (about 6 six dollars per day per child). The money comes from cutting food assistance payments.

A Place at the Table –which includes interviews with Ken Cook, President, Environmental Working Group; authors Marion Nestle and Janet Poppendieck; Dr. J. Larry Brown, a former chairman of the Physician Task Force on Hunger in America; Joel Berg, head of New York City Coalition Against Hunger; and Academy Award winning actor and longtime hunger activist Jeff Bridges– paints a sobering picture of one of the world richest counties whose population is slowly starving in food deserts, while showing us that there has to be a change in long term policies for our long term good as a country.

 A Place at the Table is in theaters nationwide, on iTunes and On Demand everywhere.