Tom Colicchio has been a mainstay in the culinary world for decades. An acclaimed chef, author and arguably the most feared judge on Bravo TV’s Top Chef, his name has become synonymous with culinary excellence. But more important than his celebrity status, Colicchio has also been fighting to end hunger in America since the earliest years of his cooking career.
As the executive producer of the new film A Place at the Table, the chef, along with his wife, filmmaker Lori Silverbush, and her codirector, Kristi Jacobson, hope to bring to light the pervasive problem of hunger in this country, or what Colicchio calls our “national embarrassment.”
“In the film, Jeff Bridges said it quite well when he said, ‘If another country was doing this to us, we’d be at war’ ” Colicchio tells TakePart.
“This” is our nation’s food insecurity problem. Currently more than 50 million Americans are food insecure, and out of those receiving food stamps—otherwise known as SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program)—about 40 percent are currently employed. With a tightly regulated program that only provides participants with about $1.40 per meal, even SNAP recipients struggle to feed themselves in a system where only the most highly processed, sugary foods are close to affordable.
Colicchio explains that despite our failings, there’s still a chance to resolve the bulk of our issues.
“I think if you ask people, ‘Who’s on food stamps?’ they’d say, ‘People who are out of work and lazy.’ It’s people who work. That’s why I think it’s really important that we increase the minimum wage, because hunger is an issue of poverty.”
While the film explores the causes of food insecurity, it also illustrates its effects. “Stuffed but starving” is a term used to describe the soaring obesity rates among the nation’s hungriest. With such little assistance available, many are often forced to live on highly processed, sugary snacks because they’re the cheapest. Not only is childhood development hampered by this kind of diet, but in adults and children both, obesity-related illnesses are rampant.
In this down economy, few may want to hear about providing more funding to assistance programs. But according to Colicchio, it could save us money.
Some experts estimate it will take $20 billion annually to end hunger in the U.S. But if we went that route, and fed our nation’s food insecure with whole, nutritious foods, in satisfying quantities, it could in turn cut down on the $113 billion spent annually on healthcare costs that go to treat obesity-related illnesses like diabetes and heart disease.
“It’s easy to demonize parents for making bad choices and feeding their kids fast food with empty calories and lots of fat and no nutrition and sugary drinks,” Colicchio says. “But if that stuff is cheap and you have no money, the difference between being hungry and crying all night long or putting soda in them—what choice do you have?”
According to the chef, that problem in particular is a systemic one that starts within the walls of our federal government.
“Our tax dollars are really going to prop up fast food, and if some of that money was siphoned off of corn, wheat and soy subsidies and moved over to fresh fruits and vegetables, it could make a major difference,” Colicchio says.
To that end, he champions the notion of reconfiguring our food stamp rules, allowing a recipient’s benefit to double if they shop at a farmers market. This would place fresh fruits and vegetables well within their economic reach, while protecting their health.
Getting involved at a government level is a course of action Colicchio is well versed in. He’s an active board member of the Food Policy Action Network, which keeps an updated scorecard on all Congressional members and their food policy-related votes. He’s also testified about hunger before Congress, and during that experience discovered the truth about government spending: “You fund your priorities. And if this becomes a priority, we’ll become funded.”
While it may seem like an insurmountable task to get our federal legislators to address food insecurity, Colicchio says that’s no excuse for not getting involved.
“Sometimes you look at this and as a problem, it seems so big that you can’t fix it, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start somewhere,” he says.
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