For José Andrés, food is everything

Chef José Andrés launches a new institute to connect the dots on food. Where we’re at with debt-limit talks and SNAP. FTC investigates infant formula makers over collusion.

Chef and humanitarian José Andrés stands at a clear podium against a blue backdrop with George Washington University's logo behind him. He is wearing a dark gray suit with an American flag/Ukrainian flag pin.

Chef José Andrés launched George Washington University's Global Food Institute on May 23. Photo courtesy of Abby Greenawalt.

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Today, in Food Fix: 

– Chef José Andrés launches a new institute to connect the dots on food

– Where we’re at with debt-limit talks and SNAP

– FTC investigates infant formula makers over collusion


For José Andrés, food is everything

Chef José Andrés is one of the few figures in the food world who needs almost no introduction. You might know him for his work serving food in the aftermath of natural disasters or during the ongoing war in Ukraine, or the recent documentary about his work, or his new travel show, or as the head of a beloved restaurant empire in Washington, D.C. and beyond. You might even recall he played a major role in last year’s White House food conference. Or, you may remember when he sued Donald Trump after pulling the plug on a restaurant planned for the Trump Hotel over the then-presidential-candidate’s deeply offensive remarks about immigrants.

These days, Andrés is seemingly everywhere, all of the time. His schedule is insane. He just opened a new restaurant in Dubai. His social media feed is a dizzying mix of photos of him meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, serving food in Syria and Turkey after a horrific earthquake, and hosting podcasts with the likes of Anderson Cooper and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Yet every single time I visit one of his D.C. restaurants and ask staff if they’ve seen him lately, without fail, they have and usually have a personal story to go with it. 

How does he manage to be everywhere? “It’s getting harder,” Andrés told me last week over lunch. “Especially the last three to four years, with the pandemic, it takes time to catch up. 100 days in Ukraine. Catching up with everybody is hard.” 

I’ve run into Andrés over the years covering food, but this is the first time we’d really sat down together. I jumped at the chance, partly in disbelief he actually had time. I fully appreciated that he multitasked during our lunch, too. We ate at Beefsteak, his all-vegetable, fast-casual D.C. restaurant in Foggy Bottom. Restaurant staff brought us a steady stream of lunch bowls throughout our conversation, and he seamlessly inquired about whether chopsticks were coming back (they aren’t), when the gazpacho bowl was launching (in June), and even filmed a super quick promo video of himself talking up the food, which I expect will land on social media at some point. 

“We are the best fast food company, now we need everybody to make sure they know,” Andrés told me.

A new food institute: Lunch was delicious, but I was really there to learn about his new Global Food Institute at George Washington University (GWU), which was formally announced on Tuesday. A decade ago, Andrés launched a popular class at the university called “World on a plate” – and its students have gone on to work in food policy across town. The new institute – initially funded by Andrés (tapping a large philanthropic award from Jeff Bezos), the Rockefeller Foundation and the Nelson A. and Michele M. Carbonell Family Foundation – seeks to integrate and raise the profile of food issues across the university’s many disciplines and majors, from the arts to business and the medical school. 

This decidedly un-siloed approach makes sense if you’ve ever heard Andrés talk about food, which he sees as inextricably tied to almost everything – hunger, health, immigration, the environment, economic prosperity, national security – and you can tell that he’d really love it if more people saw food in that way, too. He calls the institute “a dream in the making.”

“The reality is that food very much is in every single thing,” he said. The word “food” doesn’t show up in the U.N.’s sustainable development goals, he noted, but food is crucial to meeting so many of the goals, from tackling hunger to climate change.

The new institute will fund research and convene people (I expect lawmakers to take part), but it will not lobby on policies. It seems more aimed at driving interest and awareness and conversation in the nation’s capital. Surely, Andrés will have no trouble getting high-profile folks to participate in whatever he wants going forward. The launch this week featured Ambassador Susan Rice, the outgoing director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, CNN’s Dana Bash (a GWU alum) and Rajiv Shah, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, among others. Former White House chief of staff Ron Klain and Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) were also there.

Government’s role: As Andrés sees it, governments can’t just continue relegating pressing food issues to agriculture departments, because food as both a problem and a solution crosses over into too many areas. For example, one bad decision on international food aid can lead to a surge in migration, a war in Europe’s breadbasket can wreak havoc globally, not to mention the scourges of hunger and diet-related diseases, which many countries have struggled to tackle. “This has to be a holistic approach by government,” he said. 

Andrés has long been a proponent of creating a U.S. Department of Food, a way to combine all the disparate parts of the U.S. government that handle food issues, including USDA and the food division of FDA. This idealistic structure has little chance of happening, even if most serious people agree that the fractured system we have isn’t what you’d design if you were starting from scratch. But there are other more feasible ways to raise the profile of these issues, such as creating a high-level national security advisor position that’s specifically dedicated to food, something Andrés vocally advocates for. 

“People will call me crazy, but we do need it,” he told me. “I don’t see anybody watching all of these things at once and understanding that the plentiful mother earth that feeds us all, may not be so plentiful after all one day. We are more vulnerable than I think we realize.”


Where we’re at with debt-limit talks and SNAP

From what little reporting has leaked out of the ongoing (and painfully slow) debt-limit talks, it appears the House Republicans’ demand for stricter work requirements in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) remains a sticking point. 

As I noted earlier this week, some reporting attested that House Republicans actually sought to go bigger than they did in the debt-limit bill that was passed. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the bill would drop 275,000 people off the program. Republicans reportedly asked for cuts totaling many times that, though we don’t actually know how much because we don’t have the details. 

Some reports Thursday indicated House Republicans were frustrated with a lack of movement on stiffening work requirements for any safety net programs. 

Representative Garret Graves (R-La.), the top Republican negotiator, told reporters the White House is “refusing to negotiate on work requirements” for anti-poverty programs, which he called “crazy,” per Reuters.

The politics on SNAP and work requirements remain very, very volatile, as I’ve previously noted. I still haven’t talked to a single person who is confident they know how this ends for SNAP. 

Hopefully it all gets resolved soon, for so many reasons.


FTC investigates infant formula makers over collusion

“The Federal Trade Commission is investigating whether baby-formula makers colluded on bids for lucrative state contracts,” reported Wall Street Journal’s Liz Essley Whyte, Jesse Newman, and Kristina Peterson, in a big scoop this week.

FTC is looking into whether Abbott and other formula makers have “engaged in collusion or coordination with any other market participant regarding the bidding” for exclusive state contracts included in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).

Key context: WIC serves roughly half of all infants born in the U.S. and more than half of all formula in the U.S. is purchased through the program. WIC also helps low-income families purchase food staples, like milk, eggs, cereal, produce and beans. The program supports breastfeeding, too.

Beyond WIC: “The FTC is also investigating whether company coordination affected sales more broadly, outside” of WIC, per the report. This struck me as a key detail because it’s long been observed that WIC contracts greatly affect what’s sold at retail to non-WIC families. For example, in an Abbott WIC state, you’ll see way more Similac on shelves. The same goes for Mead Johnson and Enfamil. You can often tell which company has the WIC contract by looking at the formula section. Non-WIC formula is also often sold at a premium to make up for the lack of margin in WIC formula.

Company response: Abbott told WSJ it is cooperating with the FTC’s investigation, per the report. “In February, Abbott lawyers said in an email to the FTC that they weren’t aware of any evidence suggesting ‘even a hint of collusion or coordination.’ The lawyers also said they didn’t understand the factual basis of the agency’s investigation.”

Per WSJ: Nestlé also “received a request for information from the FTC known as a civil investigative demand, according to a company spokeswoman. She said the company has responded to the FTC.” Mead Johnson parent company Reckitt Benckiser “said it can’t comment on specific government investigations. A spokeswoman said Reckitt complies with regulatory and enforcement agency requests it receives as a matter of principle,” per the report.


What I’m reading

Senator calls for Dietary Guidelines halt until conflicts of interest are resolved (Senate). Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) on Thursday called for USDA and HHS to hit pause on the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee process until concerns about potential conflicts of interest are resolved. “While members of the committee have voluntarily agreed to disclose their financial relationships, activities, and interests, the link supplied in your letter aggregates the conflicts. Conflict of interests are not imputed to other members of the committee,” Grassley said. To brush up on this bubbling issue, see this recent edition of Food Fix.

Beware of the food that isn’t food (The Atlantic). I saw a lot of people sharing this piece about Chris van Tulleken and his new book Ultra-Processed People, a polemic against processed foods, which are a majority of the American diet. “Public-health campaigns against ‘junk food’—a shorthand for foods with high fat, sugar, and salt content—are well established and formed one of Michelle Obama’s priorities as first lady. Van Tulleken’s case against UPF is different. The problem isn’t the food’s nutritional profile, per se, but the industrial processes to which it has been subjected, and the artificial chemicals used to improve its flavor and shelf life.”

A food agenda beyond SNAP (National Journal). “While Democrats, including Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, have made cutting nutrition programs a red line in both the debt-ceiling talks and the farm bill, the anti-hunger agenda to ‘improve’ nutrition benefits (to use the advocates’ verb) is likely to put a new wrinkle in the farm-bill debate,” writes Jerry Hagstrom. “The anti-hunger agenda may also bring new pressure to reauthorize the child-nutrition programs that have not been updated since the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, championed by first lady Michelle Obama, became law in 2010.”

Startup Bobbie proves there’s profit in baby formula despite the dominance of industry giants (Forbes). “With shrewd marketing and a product that’s an answer for mothers looking to find something new and different to satisfy their hungry babies, Bobbie’s annual revenue has grown to $100 million in its most recent fiscal year, Forbes has exclusively learned,” writes Maggie McGrath. “The figure puts Bobbie in rarefied territory: just 7% of global venture-backed companies that have disclosed finances to Pitchbook over the last 20 years have reported revenues at this level. Fewer than one percent are led by women. Bobbie, of course, is both.” The company is valued at $388 million, according to Pitchbook.


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