Why you should care

Because it’s amazing how often our congressional representatives decide what winds up on our dinner plates. 

To keep the peace this Thanksgiving, many of us will keep that old admonition in mind: No politics at the dinner table. It’s not a bad rule. But all of us should be aware that dinner is already political.

Portrait of Tom Colicchio in a suit in a dark room

Chef Tom Colicchio

Source Justin Stephens/Getty

That’s easy to see in a case like food stamps: Legislators decide to cut benefits, or to extend them, or to allow certain people to receive them. It’s harder to see, maybe, how policy can make us fat or sick, make the price of a head of broccoli more expensive than a hamburger. But the time has come to acknowledge that food policy plays a huge role in our everyday lives — from what’s on the table every day (or what isn’t) to the health of our kids and communities.

I didn’t always think like this. When I began my career as a chef, more than 30 years ago, I shopped at the farmers market because the meat and produce there tasted better. Back then I could back my truck up into the market at Union Square and load up vegetables and fresh herbs from Guy Jones and the other early farmers. I bought local and organic, not out of concern for the environment or farmers. It was higher-quality food, period.

Three decades later, we’re looking at a very different picture. As a country, we’re finally taking a serious look at our food system and asking the right questions about what works, and what needs changing. If I’ve learned anything as a chef and advocate, it’s that few things have as much impact on our lives as food. There are many decisions that affect the food we feed our families. These are made in the kitchen, the grocery story, on farms and in the halls of Congress.

These days, it is incredibly difficult to understand what does, and too often doesn’t, go on behind the closed doors of Congress.

Unfortunately, too many of our elected officials consistently make the wrong decisions when it comes to food policy. Under a Republican Congress, it likely will get worse before it gets better. I’m particularly worried about the future of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which is set to expire next year. But overall, members of Congress regularly vote on policies that affect the quality, availability and sustainability of our food supply and how we grow and market food in this country. Yet, there has been very little attention given to bringing transparency and accountability to these decisions. These days, it is incredibly difficult to understand what does, and too often doesn’t, go on behind the closed doors of Congress.

That’s one reason I’m part of Food Policy Action, a nonprofit that arms the public with information about how their elected officials vote when it comes to improving our food and agriculture systems. From labeling genetically modified organisms to preventing the overuse of antibiotics on farms and ensuring that hungry families have access to basic food assistance, voters want this information — and they’re not afraid to use it at the ballot box. Take the case of outgoing Rep. Steve Southerland of Florida, who scored an 11 percent on our Legislative Scorecard this year. Southerland had crusaded against food stamps, calling them “a defining issue of our time,” according to The Washington Post, and an incentive not to work. And in 2013, Southerland was singularly responsible for bringing passage of the Farm Bill, traditionally a bipartisan act, to a screeching halt.

Today’s voters deserve better, and Food Policy Action is making sure every member of Congress knows that the public is now keeping score. Rep. Southerland lost his election this Nov. 4., and in the next two years we plan to go further. We will be growing our grassroots network to build a constituency of food voters. We’ll also be keeping tabs on Congress as it takes up the Child Nutrition Act in 2015.

Tom Cilicchio speaking on stage at a food conference

Tom Colicchio (second from left) speaks at the New York Times Food for Tomorrow Conference on Nov. 11, 2014, in Pocantico Hills, N.Y.

Source Neilson Barnard/Getty

The truth is, it’s time for members of Congress to put the interests of American families over the interests of big agribusiness. Elected officials need to know that how they vote on food issues has a direct impact on support from their constituents. Food Policy Action is empowering voters to take an active role in holding our elected officials accountable.

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