Why Food Needs a Plank on Party Platforms

An American election happens about one year from today, and so far the only attention food has received is reports on what the candidates eat.

Jeb Bush is paleo (great news, because with his recent staff cuts it seems he will have plenty of time to hunt and gather in 2016). Ben Carson is a vegetarian. Ted Cruz likes to cook bacon on a machine gun (I knew him in college and even then, stuff like this was happening). Hopefully we’ve come far enough as a country in 24 years that we won’t have another Hillary Clinton cookie bakeoff (or hopefully, she has a new advisor).

But this election cycle, there’s an effort to turn this food chatter into a real discussion about creating a national food policy, which the country sorely lacks. America’s food decisions are made in pretty much every department—Agriculture, Education, Environment, Health and Human Services. It’s understandable, because there are few parts of human existence untouched by food.

But coordination is needed so that, as four notable authors commented a year ago, we aren’t spending government money to make high-fructose corn syrup less expensive at the same time that we’re saying it’s terrible for your health. Shouldn’t we spend money to make things that are good for you less expensive? Coordination by a council that understands the complexities of food and food production is why Food Policy Councils have worked so well on a local level.

Coordination starts through conversation and, as Mark Bittman noted at last week’s New York Times Food for Tomorrow conference, not one presidential debate question has been on the theme of food policy even though food prices, quality, and accessibility affect everyone, every day. Culinary tourism and diplomacy are becoming more important in America’s international relations. And agriculture now has almost as much impact on the environment as the environment and climate change has on food.

On Tuesday, 50 chefs from 40 states descended on Capitol Hill to grill lawmakers on what Congress is doing about food, particularly healthier school lunches. The toques were organized by Food Policy Action, a three-year-old group that lobbies for better food policy by using scorecards to rate congresspeople on how they’re doing on specific issues and campaigning in heated elections—methods that are well-known in D.C. lobbying circles, but not to the food movement.

Chef Tom Colicchio, co-founder of Food Policy Action, said at a dinner in Washington on Monday night that he wants the group to “be the political arm of the food movement.” The 2016 presidential election is the group’s first opportunity to show what effect it can have on national politics, particularly its Plate of the Union program, designed to teach the public about food issues.

Several lawmakers attended Monday night’s dinner, including Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-California,  and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont. Colicchio, best known as the head judge on Top Chef, jokingly cautioned about the passionate chefs lobbying Capitol Hill the next day, fired up for the cause. “Don’t f— with them,” he warned. “They know how to use knives.”

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