Tom Colicchio Leads Chefs in Food Advocacy on Capitol Hill
A group of chefs including Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi and nearly forty chefs from around the country pose for a photo on the Capitol steps during their day of meeting with lawmakers to discuss food policy. (Photo Courtesy of Kris Connor/Getty Images for Chef Action Network)
On Monday, he was honored at the 2nd Annual Chef’s Roast to benefit the chef advocacy group, Chef Action Network, and Food Policy Action, an organization Colicchio founded to monitor how elected officials vote on food policy issues. Colicchio is known for his activism on issues such as GMO labeling, ending hunger, and the eliminating the use of antibiotics in food. His “Top Chef” colleagues, Padma Lakshmi and Richard Blais took the stage at Union Market to poke fun at the head judge, but Colicchio had a chance to fire back as well.
On Tuesday, he shared some of his advocacy expertise by leading a day of advocacy with a group of nearly 40 chefs from 34 states, including Padma Lakshmi, Chefs Richard Blais, Kerry Heffernan, Spike Mendelsohn, Sam Talbot, Victor Albisu, Emily Luchetti, Bill Telepan, and Lee Anne Wong. The group spent the day on Capitol Hill, meeting with over 120 congressional offices to explain the importance of the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act, which will continue to ensure healthy lunches for students across the US. Many chefs met one-on-one with lawmakers, including Senator Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.), Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.), and Rep. Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.).
Before the meetings, Colicchio spoke to the chefs at an advocacy training session hosted by the Chef Action Network and Food Policy Action at Spike Mendelsohn’s Béarnaise Restaurant. Colicchio recalled his early experiences with advocacy, saying “I know the first couple times I did this, I was scared to death walking into these offices and talking to some of these members of Congress. But for the most part they’re on your side, even if you think you’re talking to someone who is not going to listen to the message.”
His number one piece of advice to the chefs? “Stick to the messaging.” He added, “Don’t feel you have to fill their heads with facts and figures. It’s really not about that. It’s more about just being passionate about taking care of children. This idea that we’re sending kids to school to learn, and without great nutrition, they’re not going to learn. Stick to that.”
Chef Emily Luchetti, an advocacy veteran and chief pastry officer at Big Night Restaurant Group, voiced her opinion at the training as well. “I am here because thirty million children eat school lunch every single day and a large percentage eat breakfast,” she said. “How do we expect our children to learn their multiplication tables and get through American history if they don’t have the proper food or a healthy lunch? They need good nutrition for their growing bodies and their growing brains.”
After Colicchio spoke to the group of chefs, I had a chance to ask him about his goals for the day. “What we’re trying to accomplish is just to send a message to Congress that we believe the standards are working. We believe that we actually should fight for higher standards, and more school lunch. In fact, I would love to see school lunch free for everyone.”
Though it may not seem like it on the surface, he explained that proper nutrition is one of the most important challenges facing our nation. “Nutrition plays a huge role, number one in education, and number two in security of our country. When you have recruits showing up that aren’t fit to fight because of obesity and high blood pressure and diabetes, things like that, it can hurt the security of the country.” He continued, “look at the economic impact of a core diet, what it does for our healthcare costs. Look at things again like diabetes, obesity, heart disease. We can address a lot of different issues through good nutrition and we have to start at a very young age and it should start in school.”
Chefs’ voices matter because they have a unique and powerful platform to influence the food policy world. “There was some study done recently that after dietitians, when it comes to food, chefs are trusted,” Colicchio said. “But I think more than that, it’s not so much that we’re here as chefs, we’re here as citizens, we’re here as business owners, we’re here as parents.” As a father of three, he made it clear that he personally cares about these issues, and wants to ensure that all kids have access to the most nutritious food possible.
Katherine Miller, the executive director of the Chef Action Network, weighed in on how important this issue was to chefs.”It’s the number one issue that we’re asked about from the chef community,” she said. “There’s not a bigger issue that they care about. It’s because they’re fathers, they’re mothers, they are godmothers and godparents to kids.”
Miller believes that chefs play a key role in shaping food policy decisions, and encouraged them to share their personal stories and passionate opinions during their congressional meetings. “We need to maintain the progress that we’ve made with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, not roll back the standards that have done a great job in how our school kids eat,” she said.
Before thanking the chefs for their hard work, Colicchio explained that this isn’t an easy battle. “Everything that we’re fighting for, whether it’s school lunch or whether it’s labeling issues, whether it’s helping to create a better food system, none of this happens overnight. You have to keep coming back. And when you start coming back time and time again, that’s when people start taking notice.”