The school lunch debate is only the first test for the culinary political network.
by Helena Bottemiller Evich
Source: David Shankbone
“Top Chef” judge Tom Colicchio was about to deliver his critique to the starstruck House Republican aides assembled before him — but not of the wild boar carnitas they prepared for his visit.
It was on their push to roll back the first lady’s school nutrition standards. His verdict might as well been his show’s catchphrase: Please pack your knives and go.
Colicchio is part of a growing army of chefs across the country looking to channel their growing celebrity to influence food and agriculture policy in Washington, from school nutrition to the farm bill to animal welfare and even fisheries management. Their number is legion, their ranks full of names like Rachael Ray and Mario Batali along with scores of local celebrity chefs and restaurateurs — and their increasingly organized effort backs up some of the Obama administration’s sweeping food policy agenda right as it faces down an adversarial Congress.
“I think a lot of us feel food is a right,” said Colicchio, who first got involved in food politics about three years ago. “If you mention reproductive rights, you immediately go to the politics. Food? No, you don’t even think about it. It doesn’t come up. Yet everything we care about it gets voted on, whether it’s the farm bill or school lunch.”
Chef Action Network, which has trained dozens of chefs since launching last year; Food Policy Action, a 501(c)(4) co-founded by Colicchio in 2012; and Chefs Collaborative, a network of more than 10,000 culinary leaders, are now coordinating more closely than ever to increase chef engagement on Capitol Hill and beyond. Food Policy Action is planning to deliver a petition to Congress on Tuesday that endorses a bill that would require the labeling of genetically modified foods.
The chef advocacy groups recently met in New York City to hash out strategies for defending the Obama administration’s school nutrition standards. Last spring, House Republicans advanced an appropriations rider that would have allowed schools losing money to opt out of the Agriculture Department’s mandates to serve more whole grains, fruits and vegetables and less fat and sodium. The move sparked a bitter fight between Congress and first lady Michelle Obama, who championed the changes.
The school nutrition debate drove Colicchio to trek to Washington last summer for two days of meetings with GOP lawmakers. Despite being squarely on Team FLOTUS, the chef had little trouble getting meetings with the opposition. Republican aides were thrilled to get photos with him.
But Colicchio apparently didn’t make it to the office of Rep. Robert Aderholt, the Alabama Republican who chairs the House’s Appropriations Agriculture subcommittee where he has led the charge on school lunch waivers. Brian Rell, Aderholt’s chief of staff, said his office has not yet been visited by any chefs.
Rell suggests such a visit might not change the lawmaker’s position, anyhow.
“When it comes to foie gras, I’ll take a chef. When it comes to school nutrition policy, I’ll take a school nutritionist,” Rell said.
“I understand [chefs’] passion and like the fact that they’re getting involved,” said Rell, who admits he’s a “Top Chef” fan. “But what more expertise do they bring to child nutrition?”
The school lunch fight has been on hold since the waiver rider was derailed along with the appropriations process, but interest groups are anticipating Congress will try to relax the standards when the law is up for reauthorization next year.
The school lunch debate will be a big test for the culinary political network, but it’s only one of a long list of food policies the chefs are looking to be active on. In addition to the upcoming advocacy for mandatory GMO labeling, organizers are starting to lay the groundwork for getting more local food support in the next farm bill, which is at least four years away.
It’s a welcome development for progressive food policy advocates like Sam Kass, who came to the White House as an assistant chef and is now a senior policy adviser for nutrition policy.
“Chefs are getting more educated and more engaged at every level about the implications of what they’re cooking and the role food has in our country,” said Kass, who also serves as executive director of the first lady’s Let’s Move! campaign. “A lot of the policymakers who work on food policy don’t know anything about food. Chefs know a lot about food and the fact that they’re starting to get engaged in food policy is a great thing.”
But chef activists have other skeptics, too. As one GOP aide put it, it’s hard to take seriously policy advice “from a group who thinks neck tattoos are a good idea.”
Colicchio — who does not have a neck tattoo — was recently slammed in a Wall Street Journal op-ed for his “overcooked politics.”
Julie Kelly, a Chicago cooking instructor, argued the celebrity chef should stick to teaching Americans how to cook. “Culinary elites — like political elites — profess to want to help ordinary Americans, but their efforts often miss the mark as they aim to be the smartest guy at the food and wine festival,” she wrote, adding: “Tom, with all due respect, please stick to your pots and pans.”
Colicchio responded in a blog post arguing indeed he was “urging our elected leaders to adopt sensible food policies” to boost health, improve food access and support family farms: “Let me be clear: I am guilty as charged.”
Katherine Miller, founder and executive director of Chef Action Network — whose roots are in politics, having worked at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee — said she’s watched the role of chefs evolve over the past couple of years.
Celebrity chefs can be used to raise the profile of an issue on Hill much like the cast of the TV show “Modern Family” can, Miller said, but increasingly chefs are engaged in more traditional lobbying and advocacy.
When House Republicans announced their intentions to scuttle school nutrition rules last May, CAN chefs reached more than 200,000 people, urging them to contact Congress, using hashtags #chefslead, #votefood and #saveschoollunch. Within two weeks the network reached 1 million people, Miller said.
And there are more chefs who want to get involved: The James Beard Foundation has a waiting list of 500 who want to go through its food policy boot camp, a three-day retreat where participants receive advocacy and media training from CAN.
“What we’ve seen over the last two years is chefs realizing they are actually economic drivers in their communities,” said Miller. “They create jobs. They deal with important issues. They are using their voice in a different way.”
Bringing chefs to Washington has proven effective in some cases — and the culinary masters have a long history of helping with political fundraising.
President Barack Obama last month sang the praises of celebrity chef and restaurateur Jose Andrés at a $10,000-a-plate Democratic National Committee fundraiser at Andrés’ restaurant, Zaytinya, in Washington. A few weeks ago, Food Policy Action hosted a fundraiser at the home of top Democratic donor Harold Ickes, with the help of some prominent Washington-area chefs, including Cathal Armstrong of Restaurant Eve and Mike Isabella of Graffiato.
“I was sitting next to Harold all night,” Colicchio said. “By the time we were finished, he was like, ‘You know what, I like what I’m hearing. This is great.”
In the Spring of 2013 — when both Food Policy Action and Chef Action Network were just getting off the ground — Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), the most powerful appropriator in Congress, showed up early to Rep. Chellie Pingree’s Washington, D.C., home for a members-only dinner with Colicchio.
The gathering, to celebrate the reintroduction of a local foods bill, was not the first hosted by the Maine Democrat at her brownstone a few blocks from the Capitol, but it was by far the best-attended, with some 50 lawmakers, including several senators showing up.
“I remember Tom being sort of starstruck at being in a room full of politicians, and they were starstruck at being in a room with Tom Colicchio,” recalled Pingree, who said normally she expects a handful of members will show.
“[Chefs] turn out to be a very honest brokers when they are lobbying a member of Congress,” said Pingree. “People don’t see them as ideological. They cross all sides.”
The Environmental Defense Fund has for several years brought dozens of fishermen to the Hill for fly-ins, but two years ago started including chefs to help connect the dots between ocean policy and dinner plates. William Dissen, owner and executive chef at The Market Place Restaurant in Asheville, N.C., recalls having a long conversation with Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) about stricter fisheries management policies during one of the visits.
Dissen told Hagan he wanted to buy more North Carolina seafood, but he wanted the fisheries to be more sustainable and better-regulated.
“She was great,” said Dissen. “She was definitely familiar with the restaurant. She’d been in to eat before.”
Michel Nischan, chef and CEO of Wholesome Wave, is thrilled more chefs are getting into the game. He’s been on the Hill for years advocating for more funding to double food stamp benefits used to buy fresh fruits and vegetables at farmers markets. His nonprofit was able to secure $100 million in the 2014 farm bill to fund that effort.
“Chefs are among the most influential advocates I’ve ever lobbied with,” said Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group. “They bring a business perspective to food policy that a traditional advocate might not bring and they rise above the partisan divide.”