Were you as disappointed as I was to see the French Laundry’s Thomas Keller flat-out reject his role as an influencer with power to change the food system recently? If so, this might give you hope.
This week, The James Beard Foundation (JBF) — best known for its annual food industry awards — sent 15 chefs to food policy boot camp. That’s right, the iconic culinary organization has partnered with Pew Charitable Trusts to actively encourage chefs to push for real, tangible change.
The intent, says JBF Vice President Mitchell Davis, is not to make all chefs advocates. But, he told the blog The Braiser, “increasingly, chefs are interested in these bigger issues, and increasingly they have some input that would help form some larger policy … that certain set of values, beliefs, experience [that comes from] literally feeding people on the front line.”
The boot camp brought a mix of celebrity chefs — from Top Chef Masters’ Hugh Acheson and Top Chef’s Mike Isabella, to well-loved regional chefs like Michael Anthony of New York’s Gramercy Tavern and Maria Hines from Seattle’s Tilth and Golden Beetle — to Tennessee’s Blackberry Farm for three days of policy education. The group took a deep dive into antibiotic overuse in animals (and the link to antibiotic superbugs, as it relates to Pew’s Save Antibiotics campaign) and got a primer on the current farm bill.
They also had a chance to strategize more generally about how to work with NGOs and advocates, and how to introduce their (often sizable) social media followings to important, if less sexy, food issues. (The 15 chefs attending reach over 100,000 followers on Twitter alone.) They also cooked what looks like a delicious collaborative dinner together.
“They’re leaders in the sense that they’re of a generation that young chefs look up to,” said Davis. “We want the people there to go back and inspire other colleagues and other young chefs to have a voice, to think about these issues beyond ‘What was the price of the pork tonight?’ [and toward] ‘What’s behind that price?’ What are some things we can do as chefs, given the opportunity, to make political decisions?”
Andrea Reusing from Chapel Hill, N.C.’s Lantern Restaurant says the focus on antibiotics for this pilot boot camp felt appropriate. Although it was timed around today’s deadline for public comments to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Reusing is concerned that government regulation will fall short on the issue.
“We have this terrifying public health threat. It’s a ticking time bomb and we have to sound the alarm,” Reusing told me on her last day at the boot camp. “We can’t wait for the FDA to act; we can’t wait for Congress to act. So I think the boot camp was well-timed. Once these antibiotics are gone, they’re not coming back.”
In addition to speaking publicly and in the media about food system issues, she said, chefs are often in a position to connect other important change agents.
“One story came out over the last few days about a situation where there were two NGOs and a state agency working on the same issue and none of them spoke to one another. It was only because they were all introduced by a chef that they got to know each other and work together,” she said. “Chefs have the potential to be the glue that can bring disparate community members together who wouldn’t otherwise be in the same room.”