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Why chefs can make good lobbyists
Most of what Washington is supposed to be doing right now is not getting done. The farm bill, which expired just over a month ago, is likely being punted to next year, it’s unclear how or if Congress can keep the government funded past Nov. 17 (embarrassing, tbh). So today, we’re going to dive into something a little different: how chefs can be effective advocates for change when the policymaking gears are actually grinding.
About a decade ago, I started noticing chefs were showing up in Washington to lobby on all kinds of issues — child hunger, school nutrition, antibiotics in agriculture, fisheries management, the list goes on. A lot of these cooks-turned-lobbyists had gone through a James Beard Foundation advocacy training program called the Chef Bootcamp for Policy and Change. Katherine Miller, the force behind that program — which has now trained hundreds of chefs — recently came out with a book about this work and the impact it’s had over the years. “At the Table: The Chef’s Guide to Advocacy” is targeted primarily at chefs, but it offers insights on advocacy that are applicable far beyond the culinary world.
I recently caught up with Miller about her new book and what I find most interesting about chefs jumping into food fights.
The following conversation excerpt has been edited for length and clarity:
Helena: In the beginning of the book, you note that you were very skeptical at first that chefs should even be advocates. It reminded me of when I first wrote about this trend for Politico back in 2014 and a Republican aide gave me a great snarky quote that it’s hard to take policy advice seriously “from a group who thinks neck tattoos are a good idea.” Let’s start there. What changed your mind about the role chefs can play here?
Miller: I think it’s how some people feel about anyone with a public profile. When Bono started talking about aid to Africa, everybody was like, ‘What does he know about that subject? And why should we listen to him?’ I remember I was on the way to the first Chef Bootcamp, and I picked up a bunch of magazines, and in every single magazine I had picked that week there was Sean Brock with his tattoos. He was in Vogue. He was in TIME. He was everywhere. He was at the first bootcamp. I remember thinking ‘Oh, [chefs,] they’re everywhere!’ But in talking to the chefs, I realized the flip side of being everywhere.
There’s a restaurant on every corner of America, essentially — they are places that we trust. They buy from local farmers. They employ our kids, they employ us, they sort of serve as this living embodiment of a food system. Because chefs are so close to their community, they can have a conversation with a member of Congress who comes in, they can talk to the governor when they come in, and so there’s also this proximity to power that we don’t always see.
Yeah, I didn’t really get the proximity to power thing until I witnessed it on Capitol Hill, milling around these celebrity chef events — it was clear that staff and members alike were eager to meet these chefs and get into their local restaurants, even if they didn’t necessarily agree with them politically.
Food is a universal thing. We all love to eat. We all want to go to restaurants to celebrate things and you know, to mourn things and to have business meetings … whether it’s a small restaurant in rural Virginia and a chef is talking about SNAP to her local congressman, or whether it’s in Sacramento, where the governor or the secretary of ag are in a local restaurant almost every day having a meeting.
One of my tried-and-true training tips: If you have a politician come in, why not take them on a tour of the kitchen? Take them away from their table for a minute so they’re not embarrassed or put on-the-spot. Take them on a tour of the kitchen and talk to them! Mention, ‘Oh, you know, last week I cooked at a No Kid Hungry dinner and I’m really interested in SNAP, I’d love to set up a meeting.’ You don’t have to solve the problem right there, but this is access. It’s access I don’t necessarily have as an advocate, right? I don’t have a member of Congress coming over for dinner! To recognize that you have that proximity and privilege, and then use it to open a conversation and a relationship, [that] pays dividends.
At one point, you talk about how prominent chefs and other independent restaurant owners didn’t always have a way to plug in to get engaged in Washington, in part because the traditional restaurant lobby (the National Restaurant Association) is seen as primarily representing major chain restaurants and focusing on things like pushing back on higher minimum wage laws.
We say that the food system is broken, but it’s not a rosebush we can rip out of our front yard and replace with something else. It’s bamboo. It’s invasive, it’s difficult, if you take it out it may grow back. When you have the ag lobby, the medical lobby – whatever lobby – they have a conversation happening about how to move forward, but that same conversation wasn’t happening in the restaurant community. There is this monolith organization that very much represents the larger stakeholders and their interests. The little guys are like, ‘I don’t see myself in that.’
I’d forgotten how big of a role chefs played in the fight over GMO labeling back in the day, which got pretty ugly on Capitol Hill, though it did ultimately result in national disclosure requirements. (It’s not mandatory up-front labeling, which is what chefs and advocates had pressed for, but companies do have to disclose when foods contain GMO ingredients via back-of-pack labels or QR codes, etc.) What are some other notable issues that chefs have engaged with in recent years?
I think the GMO labeling [fight] was sort of tailor-made for chefs. Smaller and independent restaurants were the first to put their own labels on menus about where food was grown.This was a call for transparency. It was incredibly fraught, but it centered on food. It was a place where they could make a difference by using their public profiles.
Michel Nischan’s work with Wholesome Wave on GusNIP [a federal program that provides incentives to help low-income people purchase more fruits and vegetables] is probably the gold standard. He understands how to break down a message and he knows this work takes a long time. Sustainable seafood is another place where chefs have really excelled. Renee Erickson in Seattle — all of her restaurants support community-based organizations and tribes in the Pacific Northwest [that] support the reclamation of salmon waterways. She’s been to Washington, D.C. repeatedly to talk about Magnuson-Stevens [the federal legislation that governs federal fisheries management]. Patrick Mulvaney’s work on mental health is also notable.
If you’re interested in learning more about chefs getting involved in advocacy, check out At The Table.
What I’m reading
Behind closed doors, Johnson sounds a cautious note on SNAP (Politico). “House Speaker Mike Johnson privately conceded this week that Republicans may not succeed in further slashing the nation’s massive food assistance program for low-income Americans, according to two GOP lawmakers present at a closed-door meeting with Johnson,” reports Meredith Lee Hill. “Shrinking the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is a top priority for hard-right conservatives and until now has been a priority of Johnson’s. Backing off some of the House GOP’s most severe plans for the program sets up a potential clash with some of Johnson’s fellow Republicans who are pushing the new speaker to secure steep new restrictions and spending cuts across SNAP in the upcoming farm bill reauthorization.”
Eli Lilly wins FDA nod for obesity drug that rivals Wegovy, Ozempic (Bloomberg). “Eli Lilly won US approval for its diabetes drug to treat obesity, unlocking blockbuster sales potential and sparking a battle for dominance of a market that’s expected to hit $100 billion by 2030,” reports Madison Muller. “The weight-loss drug, branded Zepbound, contains exactly the same active ingredient as the company’s diabetes drug Mounjaro, and will cost $1,059.87 for a month’s supply. That’s cheaper than Wegovy, a similar weight-loss drug made by Novo Nordisk, which is $1,349 for a month’s supply. Zepbound will be available soon after Thanksgiving, the company said.” (For more on how these drugs could affect food companies and public health, go here.)
Toxic toddler fruit pouches: “Extremely high” lead levels sicken 7 in 5 states (Ars Technica). “At least seven children across five states have suffered acute lead poisoning linked to at least three brands of apple cinnamon fruit puree pouches marketed to children and sold nationwide, the Food and Drug Administration announced in an updated safety alert Friday,” reports Beth Mole. “The brands include WanaBana apple cinnamon fruit puree pouches, Schnucks brand cinnamon-flavored applesauce pouches, and Weis brand cinnamon applesauce pouches. All three have been recalled.”
Veterans who are food insecure are less likely to seek help than civilians (The War Horse). “After nearly 15 years of interacting with veterans who struggle to afford food,” reports Anne Marshall-Chalmers, one advocate “says pride keeps many from enrolling in SNAP, as well as the mentality ingrained in the military that they can survive anything, and that others need the help more than they do.” On a related note, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, PsychArmor, and Combined Arms just launched a PSA and campaign to spotlight veteran hunger.
Magnolia Pictures reteams with Participant & River Road as U.S. distributor for ‘Food, Inc. 2 (Deadline). “An urgent continuation of the original film’s story, the doc is slated to premiere in the spring,” reports Matt Grobar. “In the sequel, which world premiered at Telluride, directors Robert Kenner and Melissa Robledo reunite with investigative authors Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) and Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) to take a fresh look at food in the U.S. The film reveals how corporate consolidation has gone unchecked by our government, leaving us with a highly efficient yet shockingly vulnerable food system dedicated only towards increasing profits.”
U.S. federal food spending could accelerate climate mitigation, equity (Federal Good Food Purchasing Coalition). The Federal Good Food Purchasing Coalition analyzed two years of publicly available food purchasing data to come up with the “first-ever carbon footprinting of federal food spending.” The report found that the U.S. government spent $9.1 billion on food in fiscal year 2022, largely through the Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Greenhouse gas emissions from one year of federal food purchasing total 14,683,200 metric tons of CO2e, including 5,781,800 metric tons of CO2e in methane emissions. That is more than the emissions from every passenger car in Virginia,” the group said.
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