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Chefs on the Hill

Used to be that the arrival of the first chanterelles of the season or the purchase of a high-tech immersion circulator was all it took to get a chef fired up. While these subjects haven’t lost their allure, today’s top toques are getting equally as animated discussing GMOs, antibiotics and food deserts. And a growing number are taking these discussions into the halls of Congress.

Spike Mendelsohn, fine-dining chef, TV personality and founder of the five-unit Good Stuff Eatery, is based in Washington, D.C.—a location that makes it difficult to be apolitical. But “I was not involved in politics six years ago, until Michelle Obama launched her ‘Let’s Move’ campaign and I got on board,” he says. From fighting childhood obesity to the labeling of GMOs in food products, Mendelsohn is now committed to driving change through political action. An effective vehicle for him and other chefs is Food Policy Action, co-founded in 2012 by high-profile chef and restaurateur Tom Colicchio.

While not new, FPA is drawing more chefs into its fold each year and becoming an influential voice on the Hill. Chefs have clout—especially TV celeb chefs like Tom Colicchio and Spike Mendelsohn. Here are some ways they’re impacting food policy without taking on the dreaded role of food police.

National Food Policy scorecards

The FPA looks at the voting record of each senator and congressman on food-related issues—everything from hunger relief to school lunch, food labeling and sustainable farming. Those who support FPA’s mission receive a high score on a scale of 1 to 100; those who don’t, score low. The third scorecard was posted on FPA’s website at the end of 2014, revealing that food policy can be non partisan; both Democrats and Republicans were among the high and low scorers.

Food policy boot camp

The James Beard Foundation launched the Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change, inviting chefs to apply on a rolling basis. The most recent retreat, held in partnership with Pew Charitable Trusts at Blackberry Farm in Tennessee, focused on antibiotic overuse in animals. Attendees included Top Chef alumni, such as Hugh Acheson and Mike Isabella, and well-known regional chefs, such as Michael Anthony of New York City’s Gramercy Tavern and Andrea Reusing of Lantern in Chapel Hill, N.C.

“The goal is to build a growing network of like-minded chefs, provide support for personal interests and passions and give tools and guidance that will help them act as influential advocates,” states the Beard Foundation website. The 15 attendees have the potential to be very influential—their combined Twitter reach alone numbers 100,000 followers. When chefs tweet, people listen.

State of the Union address

Tom Colicchio was invited by Congresswoman Chellie Pingreeto to be her guest at President Obama’s State of the Union address in January. While probably not the first time a chef was in the audience (Sam Kass, the Obama family’s former personal chef and nutrition policy advisor has no doubt been in attendance), this is evidence that lawmakers feel chefs can affect legislation. “Few things have as much direct impact on our day-to-day lives as food,” said Colicchio in a press release on FPA’s website. “While not front and center in the President’s speech tonight, there is a lot of good, bi-partisan work to be done in the next year to improve the country’s food supply.”

Lobbying for change

In December, more than 700 chefs descended on Capitol Hill for Congressional lobby day. On the agenda: a petition to mandate the labeling of genetically modified foods. Among the lobbyists (in addition to Colicchio) were such recognizable names as Jose Andres, Art Smith, Cathal Armstrong and Michel Nischan. Their goal: to promote transparency and prevent consumer deception. Currently, several states are in favor of the mandate but there are efforts in Congress to block state GMO labeling laws.

Although 700 chefs sounds like a lot, the large food companies—pretty much opposed to GMO labeling—have a stronger and bigger lobby. More chefs and restaurateurs need to have their voices heard. Action doesn’t have to involve a trip to Capitol Hill. Start locally, with issues that are relevant to your community and your customers. And spread the word about the work FPA is doing.

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