Finding North

Finding North


Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

The oddly-named Finding North would probably be better retitled 'Finding Food', for this documentary is a stark warning that the richest nation on earth in terms of GDP cannot in fact feed a good percentage of its own people. As the US sinks into decline, burdened by failed wars, a massive deficit and a gridlocked political system beset by corporate lobbying and religious/ideological extremism, the sad truth is we can probably expect more unsettling documentaries such as this for years to come.

Focusing on a small group of individuals and families around a small Colorado town, filmmakers Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush illustrate how roughly one in six Americans aren't getting enough to eat on a regular basis. Given media preoccupations, corporate domination of Washington and social shame, this new face of hunger has been largely kept invisible. True - America does have a (admittedly harsh) welfare system, and in terms of production there is no shortage of any food type. There are no breadlines in the streets. But if you look inside the ever multiplying soup kitchens and food banks, they are feeding people who can’t make ends meet even if they work full-time and multiple jobs.

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Through the human stories in the town, and a series of academic talking heads (including the ever-affable but genuinely committed Jeff Bridges, whose charity programmes have been warning of this looming crisis for years) Finding North lays out the background to this entirely avoidable tragedy. Large farming subsidies and a powerful corporate lobbying network mean calorie-packed food types are kept down in price and made widely available, while pricier staple fruit and vegetables are kept out of the hands of the poorest.

This leads to the phenomenon of 'food deserts', where whole regions of the US are denied the distribution of healthy food types as it just isn't viable (in one disturbing scene a local chef illustrates how she has to drive dozens of miles just to buy basic vegetables for her cafe). When the poor can afford to eat, they are eating, for want of a better word, crap. Thus Mississipi might have the highest poverty rate in the US, but it also has the honour of the highest obesity rates, with all the associated health problems.

In the US, ironically, you need more rather than less income to be able to keep your weight down. An even greater irony is that it was Richard Nixon, the president who resigned in disgrace, who laid the groundwork for many of the modern food programmes that helped end hunger in the US in the 1970s. Conservative ideologies and corporate lobbying has since destroyed or cut funding from most of those programmes, even those aimed at providing healthy balanced school meals, creating a vicious cycle where from youth onwards America's future generations are being starved of physical and mental energy.

Stagnating wages mean Food Stamps and other welfare benefits are now supplementing income but with decreasing effect, as they are being cut too (in one cruel move we are shown how the US Congress did authorise recently an increase in the school food budget, but only by cutting Food Stamps at the same time). Hospitals and charities pick up the tab in the form of the cost of treating diabetes and other diet-related ailments.

Other documentaries have touched on similar concerns, such as Super Size Me and Food Inc., so it is perhaps no surprise that a documentary exclusively focusing on this resurgent crisis would soon come to the fore. In fact, as the film makes clear, it is following in the footsteps of the public television news features of the 1970s which helped galvanise the nation to attack the food inequality crisis in the first place.

Filmmakers Jacobson and Silverbush keep it fast and straightforward, with little resort to heavy facts and figures, preferring instead the colour of the human stories. They also save some screen time to air possible solutions rather than just fling out indictments, most of which focus on, at a minimum, restoring the slashed programmes from decades ago. It is such a shame that any progress on this seems way over the horizon, given how the US economy seems so locked into its unsustainable course of low wage, low security, and low state support.

Given the UK tends to follow in the US's footsteps, this is particularly essential viewing for British audiences.

Reviewed on: 02 May 2012
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Documentary examining the hunger crisis threatening America.
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Director: Kristi Jacobson, Lori Silverbush

Year: 2012

Runtime: 80 minutes

Country: US


Sundance 2012

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