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Tom Colicchio

"Top Chef" Judge, Chef

TOP CHEF JUDGE TOM COLICCHIO and his wife, filmmaker Lori Silverbush, were thrilled to land an underprivileged female mentee in a New York City private school.

“This was about five, six years ago,” Colicchio remembers. “But one week in, we got a call from the principal that she was scrounging in the garbage and asking other students for food. We hadn’t realized the school didn’t have a lunch program, and, so, the only meal this child had been eating was now gone.”

Needless to say, they were concerned. How was it that in a country with this much food — where $6 kale sells in droves and 40% of food ends up in the garbage — are 50M Americans still starving?

“People aren’t hungry because there’s a scarcity of food,” the chef explains. “They’re hungry because we don’t have the political will or policies to make sure everyone gets fed.”

What Colicchio realized is this: Since poor people don’t vote, the government often ignores them. But you know who does vote? Foodies — the large, wealthy and influential constituency found at Sunday farmers’ markets.

“I made a bet that people who care about food would also care about hunger,” Colicchio says, getting to his thesis. “And have dedicated my life, my face and my time to educating those people on how to vote around food — to forging a constituency of food voters who value these issues the same way people value reproductive rights or the Second Amendment.

The celeb chef wants you to vote around food

Tom Colicchio - Top Chef Judge, Chef

“TO TACKLE HUNGER, we must first change our government’s food subsidy program,” Colicchio asserts.

Because hungry people — especially those enrolled in programs like food stamps — are limited to whatever’s cheap. In our country, that means subsidized corn, wheat and soy products, often unhealthy and highly processed. You never see subsidies for, say, apples. No fruits or vegetables.

“Healthy food needs to be more affordable,” Colicchio adds. “Which is the complete opposite of what we currently support. More than 180M Americans are affected by food-related illnesses like heart disease and obesity — far more than are affected by terrorism — and that stems from these policies.”

And while Colicchio argues there should also be subsidies encouraging conservation and sustainable farming, he’s battling a constant army of powerful DC lobbyists employed by large food corporations.

“There’s a huge push behind corn, for example,” Colicchio explains. “And, so, even though I read today that corn [prices] are at an all-time low, farmers are planting more of the stuff. It makes absolutely no sense.”

Food Subsidies & Washington

180M Americans suffer from food related illnesses like heart disease and obesity — far more than are affected by terrorism.”
Tom Colicchio - Top Chef Judge, Chef
Healthy food should be subsidized, which is the complete opposite of what [our current policies] are doing.”

So, what’s in it for farmers? Thanks to something called crop insurance, which enables them to lock in prices for certain goods, farmers are incentivized to participate. Washington foots not only their premiums, but also any payouts.

“It isn’t insurance in the way you typically think about insurance,” Colicchio explains. “Crop insurance guarantees a food’s price. Take my restaurant as an example: It would be like me securing I’ll do X amount of business. So, even if it snowed out — and only 10 people came in — it’s the government’s responsibility to pay me as if 200 people had.”

This protects farmers from droughts in California. From unruly El Nino weather. Who wouldn’t plant the sure thing — whatever’s crop insured — instead of “riskier” healthy options?

“And that’s what I want people to vote around,” he asserts. “What I want candidates to talk about: reversing policies that fuel our country’s struggle with both hunger and obesity.”

Colicchio also references the current election and its candidates’ obvious preference for topics other than food.

“I understand that it’s tough,” he empathizes. “That Ted Cruz’s stance on cutting [corn-based] ethanol mandates, for example, was challenging in Iowa… But any meaningful issue is bound to polarize people.”

Lucky for us, Colicchio will brandish the food flag.

The Dangers of Crop Insurance

Tom Colicchio - Top Chef Judge, Chef

AT THIS POINT, IT’S LIKE: What hasn’t Tom Colicchio done to create food voters? There’s A Place at the Table, his 2013 documentary investigating hunger in America. He cut portion sizes at his New York City restaurant, Colicchio & Sons, to address food waste and obesity. And in 2012, he founded Food Policy Action to educate Americans about food issues.

“Ken Cook [co-founder of the Environmental Work Group] suggested we start an organization and call it Food Policy Action,” he laughs. “The name says it all… We run projects like a scoring system that shows constituents how their representatives in Congress vote around food.” [A national example of which is shown above.]

But really, Colicchio is disrupting by campaigning — by using his celebrity to raise awareness and educate voters. He stays on Congress like white on rice, garnering so much attention, in fact, MSNC named him their first ever food correspondent.

“I testified on the Hill for the first time six years ago, and I keep going back, back and back,” Colicchio remembers. “Last year, representative George Miller, who was retiring at the time, took me aside to say thanks… that a lot of celebrities come, get a photo opp and then disappear. Congress really notices when people stick around.”

Colicchio Takes On Washington

A lot of celebrities come, get a photo opp and then disappear. Congress really notices when people come back.”

Speaking of Congress noticing people who care…

“I know from years of working in Washington that Congress notices letters from constituents,” Colicchio asserts. “If you care about hunger, call your representative. Write them a letter. Let them know food issues matter. The only way to make a difference is to get active.”

And while Colicchio does not think it’s the job of a chef to get involved with politics, he does think it’s the job of individuals.

“I’m not involved with this issue because I’m a chef. I’m involved because, as a citizen, I care about people. If you care, get active and stay active. Vote locally and not just during presidential elections. Our system may be broken, but it’s only one we have. Work with it.”


So, what can you do?

Our system may be broken, but it's only one we have. Work with it.”


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