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Tom Colicchio Spoke to Us About Taking the Food Advocacy Fight to Washington

The <i>Top Chef</i> judge and chef/restaurateur is also the cofounder of Food Policy Action, an organization that seeks to hold legislators accountable on votes that have an effect on food and farming.

Being a chef—especially one who has risen to the top ranks of the profession—is no easy feat. Most folks struggle simply to make ends meet in an unforgiving and oversaturated industry. And being a person who can actually effect change in the American agribusiness and food industry is perhaps even harder. It requires an undying zeal for change, an unfaltering ability to assess the confused morass that is food policy today, and an unflagging desire to figure out the most expedient way to reform it.

Tom Colicchio is most certainly that kind of man.

Most people know Colicchio as the the head judge on Top Chef and the veteran chef and restaurateur behind such iconic restaurants as Craft, Colicchio & Sons, and many others. But Colicchio is also the cofounder and a board member of Food Policy Action, an organization formed in 2012 that seeks to "hold legislators accountable on votes that have an effect on food and farming." With the goal of changing food policy by showing the public how elected officials are voting on food issues, the organization created a National Food Policy Scoreboard. The scoreboard rates members of Congress on how well they vote on hunger programs, farm subsidies, food safety, animal welfare, nutrition, the effect of food on the environment, and other food-related issues.

I have children, I vote, I want a better world. It's not enough to me to just sit around and hope things pass.

I had a chance to chat with Colicchio as he gets ready to head to Capitol Hill to speak to Congress. He will also be honored by both Food Policy Action and the Chef Action Network in Washington next week at the 2nd Annual Chef's Roast.

MUNCHIES: Were you always politically minded or did your interest in food policy arise more recently in your career? Tom Colicchio: I've always been interested in politics, starting at a young age. But it's not something I thought I could effect change through. I was just someone who watched politics and was interested. It wasn't until my wife started making a documentary about hunger in America that I very quickly realized that people were hungry, not because of lack of resources but because of a lack of political will to fix hunger. That got me thinking. Forty-eight million people are hungry—that's a voting block. We could really move the needle—it's not a demographic you get very often. Also, you find that people who are interested in better food are also interested in hunger. So bringing [these groups] together, we can affect the process. There are programs to alleviate hunger, but these programs are always under pressure to be defunded. There's just no political will. So to put more emphasis to end—not manage—hunger, it takes money and will. If you created more of a constituency, you can get politicians to start looking at whether they can use these issues to run and to win, and they're in business to win elections. Washington is usually several steps behind the populace, so if you get people behind the issues, hopefully politicians will decide to get involved. That's how FPA got started.

Did you often feel pushback from politicians with respect to the programs that you and FPA support? Yeah, sure. You know, our first bit of business at FPA was to create a scorecard [that rates how Congress people vote on food-related issues]. First one came out, not much notice. Second one, we got traction. Third one, we really started to hear from people. Those who got bad scores, they started asking why. We decided to get involved in one particular race. A Florida Republican near Tallahassee—Steve Southerland—was particularly bad, trying to cut SNAP by $31 million, just terrible on some of these issues. We found a good candidate [Gwen Graham] and we started testing some messages around hunger in seniors and in children. And we started taking positions. We helped get Southerland out of office. We didn't win the election [for Graham], but we thought we helped a little bit. She won by 3,400 votes. People were very engaged around hunger.

The ethos that I have in sourcing ingredients has been with me for 20 years or so, and that has shaped my ideas about food politics.

Do you think so-called "celebrity chefs" have or should have more of a responsibility in influencing food policy? No, no, no. I, for whatever reason, have a platform. I don't think anyone has an obligation. I don't do it as a chef—I do it as a citizen. But no one is under any obligation. This is grassroots stuff. Our donors are small donors. I have children, I vote, I want a better world. It's not enough to me to just sit around and hope things pass. People I'm advocating for typically don't have money to hire lobbyists—like kids who eat school lunches. So my feeling is that if you're so inclined, you have to do more. There are a lot of chefs who do things in their own way. I think people have an obligation to do something, if they want to do something. Chefs can teach people to cook, about nutrition. So there are ways to engage—but we all get involved in our own way.

What are some of the biggest accomplishments of Food Policy Action? Helping to get a member of Congress elected, certainly. Also, when we first started, we tried to make appointments on the Hill and we'd get a few here and there. Next week, I'm going up and meeting with tons of people—so that's an achievement. People are taking notice. We're not going away. Six years ago, I testified in front of George Miller's committee [in the House of Representatives] about school lunch debates. Last year, I was there again. He took me aside and said, "Tom, thanks for coming back. Celebrities come once, but you keep coming back. People notice it." Personally, that was good to hear. As a group, FPA, were not going away. We'd love it if in one of the upcoming debates, food issues are mentioned. We'd like a candidate to point out that the food system in this country is broken. But we're growing and people are taking notice. Our goal is to add a voice to the conversation around food, hunger, treatment of animals, raising animals in a way that is friendly to the environment, clean water for fish, animals in feedlots that are polluting groundwater in Iowa and North Carolina. Someone's got to fight for this. We're focusing on the policy end of it. We're really going right to lawmakers.

Fast food doesn't need tax support or subsidies. Today, calories are cheap. Nutrition is expensive.

Has your interest in food politics influenced what you serve in your restaurants? I think it's the other way around. The ethos that I have in sourcing ingredients has been with me for 20 years or so, and that has shaped my ideas about food politics.

If you could ask young people to get behind one issue, what would that be? Oh God, there are so many. Getting rid of antibiotics in animals is a big issue. Looking at what we're told from the government is another. Where are our subsidies going? To corn, wheat, soy, cotton—in other words, to fast food. Only 1 to 6 percent of subsidies go to so-called "specialty crops"—i.e., fruits and vegetables. Specialty? I think Millennials would agree we need to find a way to make healthy food more affordable. It's easy to demonize parents—but fast food and soda is cheap. Why isn't a peach cheaper than a fast food hamburger? A burger should cost a lot more money. Our tax dollars go to support that. I think Millennials would be so pissed off—you start realizing in your twenties that taxes are real. Once the government has our tax dollars, they should do good with it. Fast food doesn't need tax support or subsidies. Today, calories are cheap. Nutrition is expensive. Millennials should look at that. I think those are the biggest issues. Also, we don't need 47 to 48 million people unable to feed themselves in this country. Young people want justice—where's the justice in the system we have right now? Right now, healthy food is only affordable to people with money. If you don't have money and are forced to buy food that isn't good for you—it costs the healthcare system. We also need young people to start farming—but they can't afford to buy land. How do you make the government help farmers? Because young people want to do this work, but the barrier to entry is so high. Healthy food needs to be affordable.

What about the upcoming presidential election? You're behind "Plate of the Union," which is a call to the candidates to make reformation of the nation's food system a part of the presidential discourse. Are you endorsing anyone as of yet? Not right now. Right now the goal would be to share the information that we have. Hopefully, people will look at that information and start a conversation. Will I personally endorse someone? Eventually I will.

Thanks for speaking with me, Tom.