Food is Worth Fighting For


By Tom Colicchio

I was recently criticized for urging our elected leaders to adopt sensible food policies that expand accessibility to food, improve nutrition and health, and support family farms. Let me be clear: I am guilty as charged.

I have spent my entire life around food. My mother was a school lunch lady, and from her I learned not only how to cook, but about the importance of food in so many aspects of life. Today, I’m a parent and a chef. Like almost every family, mine makes daily decisions about food in the kitchen, at the grocery store, at work, and at school. What many Americans don’t realize, however, is that our representatives in Washington are also making decisions about the food we eat, and not very good ones.

Washington, D.C. has incredible influence on the quality, availability, and affordability of food in America. Federal subsidies, paid for with American tax dollars, are lavished on the ingredients that make unhealthy food cheap, produced by Corporate mega-farms, while healthy fruits and vegetables are labeled “specialty crops” and receive far less support. Today, an effort is underway to prevent consumers from knowing whether the food they buy contains genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, even though the overwhelming majority of Americans support their right to know what is in their food. Lawmakers decide eligibility and funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps even as the great Recession has left more and more hungry Americans in its wake. For millions of families, politicians are literally deciding who gets to eat. In the last farm bill, politicians in Washington slashed food stamps by an unconscionable $8.6 billion.

Recipients of food stamps have been treated as if they are lazy or have substandard values. According to the non-partisan Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, three-fourths of new SNAP recipients leave the program within two years, and half receive benefits for ten months or less — evidence that the program is a crucial life line for families during hard times. Millions of SNAP recipients are working and still can’t afford sufficient food to lead a healthy, productive lives, and as more and more Americans meet this description, the SNAP program has grown to accommodate them.

So, do I think food is a political issue? You bet I do. You bet I do.

For all of these reasons and more, I am a food advocate. Elected officials in Washington are making decisions that affect how we grow, produce, manufacture, and market our food. In 2012, I co-founded Food Policy Action, a non-partisan organization that arms the public with information about how their elected officials vote when it comes to improving our food and agriculture systems. From ensuring hungry families have access to basic food assistance, to labeling GMOs and preventing the overuse of antibiotics on farms, voters want this information and the response to our efforts has been incredible. These are not Republican or Democratic (or – heaven-forbid Progressive) issues. These are American issues, and how we address them says a lot about our values as Americans.

There’s a lot ahead that voters have a right to know about: Next year, Congress will reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act, which shapes the quality and availability of school meals. Some of our lawmakers want to roll back the nutritional gains made in the last Child Nutrition Act, at the urging of food companies who think pizza should count as a vegetable. We also expect votes on consumers’ right to know about the presence of GMOs in their food – whether you think GMOs are smart farming or a threat to the environment, there is no credible rationale for hiding them from the American public. I’ll continue to speak out on these issues because there are a lot of powerful people hoping that Americans aren’t watching too closely, and I’m fortunate enough to have a spotlight and a megaphone.

One critic suggested I should “stick to my pots and pans.” But I’ve always made sure there is good, responsibly sourced food in those pots and pans, and I’m not about to stop now. Americans have a right to that, and a right to speak out when they see issues of basic common sense and justice mishandled by their elected officials, whether they are chefs or not. You might leave the “proselytizing to the politicians” but I prefer my leaders lead, with smart policies that make healthy, affordable food available to all.

Tom Colicchio is a chef, food advocate and board member of Food Policy Action

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