Training Chef Advocates in the Age of Trump

(Bloomberg) -- As controversy erupted over a single restaurant’s decision not to serve White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders over the weekend, more than a hundred other eateries in thirteen states were busy raising money—more than $26,000 at last count, with about half reporting—for the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), a Texas-based nonprofit at the forefront of the current immigration battle.

“We wanted to do something,” about the crisis on the border said Paul Calvert, co-owner of Atlanta’s Ticonderoga Club who organized the fundraiser with his wife, Sarah O’Brien, owner of Little Tart Bakeshop. “This is not a political thing, it’s a human thing.”

The previous administration was remarkable for its inclusion of chef slash nutrition policy advisor Sam Kass, who played a pivotal role in First Lady Michelle Obama’s healthier school lunch program and other policy campaigns. But even without a foodie-friendly White House, chefs and restaurant owners are still pushing their agendas, whether its stopping cuts to food stamps, promoting local, sustainably caught seafood, or urging consumers to think about the immigrants that harvest, cook, and clean up after their meals.

Training Chef Advocates in the Age of Trump

The James Beard Foundation, usually known for crowning the best restaurants and cookbooks, has trained 203 advocates through its Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change. The latest iteration, its fifteenth, was held this month at the idyllic Glynwood Farm in Cold Spring, New York. The program focused on the Farm Bill, but its lessons aren’t specific to any single policy. Attendees become experts in their chosen issue, engage with legislators, create social media campaigns and generally learn to leverage their popularity for social good.

“The idea was to take the power of chefs to accelerate change,” said Katherine Miller, JBF’s Vice President of Impact. 

Chef Joy Crump, co-owner of several Virginia restaurants and an alumna of the JBF program as well as Top Chef, invited Republican Congressman Rob Wittman, for a meal, a tour of a local farm and a conversation about the Farm Bill’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, otherwise known as food stamps. SNAP is often described as the “first line of defense” against hunger, serving more than 40 million Americans each month. Restaurant servers are almost twice as likely than the general population to need SNAP benefits, a recent report from Restaurant Opportunities Center United found. 

“We were trying to show him how programs like SNAP are such an important part of our industry,” Crump said.

From Crump’s perspective, the conversation was a success. “It was amazing, he was very connected to the stories,” she said. The ask wasn’t for a specific vote. “It was just building a story and opening a dialogue,” she added. “That’s more realistic in a Republican administration.”

(Congressman Wittman’s office did not respond to a request for comment. Last week, the congressman voted for H.R. 2, a Farm Bill with SNAP cuts.)

Training Chef Advocates in the Age of Trump

As Executive Chef of the State of Alabama (and also an alum of both the Boot Camp and Top Chef), Jim Smith has a unique perch. Cooking for the First Family and at official state events puts him in the room with decisionmakers every day, but weighing in on contentious political issues like the Farm Bill could interfere with his job.

“For me, there’s a real bright line,” he said. “If they’re coming through my buffet, it’s not appropriate for me to talk to them about politics.”

Training Chef Advocates in the Age of Trump

Instead, Smith champions his home state’s seafood. As Chairman of the Alabama Seafood Marketing Commission, he has helped both the industry—sales are up from about $300 million in 2010 to over $500 million in 2015—and the local fish populations.

“If we had a Jim Smith in every state,” said Tim Fitzgerald of the Environmental Defense Fund, “we’d have a much more vibrant sustainable seafood industry in the U.S.”

Even in historically conservative Alabama, the environmentalism hasn’t been met with resistance, thanks to the positive economic impact that comes with it. “It’s a nonpartisan issue,” Smith says. “Good for everybody.”

Chef Andrea Reusing of Lantern in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, has spent years bringing attention to the plights of the people that actually grow and prepare America’s food. “There’s a real fundamental invisibility of people who work in foodservice and of people who work on farms,” she told Bloomberg. “Wanting to talk about that is a natural thing for chefs.” The average total individual income for farmworkers, including off-farm income, is $15,000-$17,499, according to Farmworker Justice, and the population suffers disproportionately from lack of affordable housing, healthcare and other social services. At least half of farmworkers are undocumented immigrants.

While restaurateurs may disagree over whether or not to serve members of the Trump administration, Reusing says getting involved in the RAICES fundraiser was a no brainer. “It was an easy decision for a lot of restaurants to make because of the sheer horror of the images.”

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