That it's difficult to quantify the extent of hunger in America is the first -- and by no means only -- obstacle to ending it. The documentary "A Place at the Table" tells us that 49 million people in this country, including a full quarter of the nation's children, are "food insecure." Even most politically aware people won't know what this label means. The rhetoric surrounding food in the United States is so politically charged that it's hard to trust even the categories into which people are put -- let alone the "solutions" proffered to get them out of those categories.

Such complications aren't recognized by the easy sentimentality of "A Place at the Table," and so what could have been a moving and even influential piece of cinema is instead almost forgettable -- though the needy at its center beg not to be, simply by looking directly at the camera.

To be "food insecure" is to be unsure where or when you'll get your next meal. It's different from simply "going hungry." There are times, of course, when the two do intersect. "We get really hungry and our tummies just growl and sometimes I feel like I'm gonna barf," is how Rosie, a fifth-grader in Collbran, Colo., describes the food insecurity she and her family face. Rosie is a blunt and heartbreaking little girl. "We've been without vegetables for a while," her grandmother tells us, while Rosie's mom Trish says she was turned away when she applied for food stamps -- though she doesn't tell us why.

That's one of the infuriating things about this documentary. It gives all of the information needed to pull at our heartstrings, but almost none needed to assess the problem clearly and think through possible solutions.

On screen
'A Place at the Table'
» Rating: 1 out of 4 stars
» Starring: Jeff Bridges, Tom Colicchio, Ken Cook
» Directors: Kristi Jacobson, Lori Silverbush
» Rated: PG for thematic elements and brief mild language
» Running time: 84 minutes

Plenty of talking heads are paraded before the camera, along with the compulsory celebrities (in this case, actor Jeff Bridges and "Top Chef" star Tom Colicchio, who is married to one of the directors). But some of these "experts" put politics above the plate, supporting solutions that would likely make the problem worse. Marion Nestle, for example, is cited here as a leader in nutrition policy. How would Rosie's mom feel if she knew that Nestle had declared that "food is too cheap in this country"?

It's not as if directors Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush couldn't have found room for a more nuanced discussion of hunger and food politics. They throw in everything but the kitchen sink here: agribusiness, urban food deserts, farm subsidies, government aid programs. Oh, and increased defense spending -- that's partly responsible for American children going hungry.

Given the amount of money the government spends each year, that simplistic view of problem and solution is unpersuasive. For Jacobson and Silverbush, "A Place at the Table" was probably a labor of love they made to bring attention to the plight of children like Rosie. Unfortunately, their slipshod work fails her and the other hungry children of America.