Chefs in Action: Working for Change
photo credit: Eddie Gehman Koahan/

“Chefs are starting to see that they can play a role in change; that their presence – weighing in – can make a difference,” says Emily Byram, project manager, Share Our Strength. Emily recently accompanied some chefs to Capitol Hill, where they prepared and served hors d’oeuvres to members of Congress to push for the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Bill and to end childhood hunger. “SOS has a history of fundraising and involvement in hunger issues. But giving chefs opportunities to get involved in hunger issues on other levels is exciting for us and for them.” Even locally, says Michel Nischan, owner/founder, Dressing Room restaurant, “The minute chefs get involved, the community gets so much more energized.”

“We feel that having chefs, who know first hand about so many of these issues involving food and hunger, on the Hill in their whites gets Congress’ attention.”– Emily Byram, project manager, Share Our Strength

Rick Bayless, chef/owner, Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, and XOCO also sees the opportunity. “I think that most chefs are incredibly passionate people. For these passionate individuals with such great convictions to now have the opportunity – which we haven’t had as much in the past – to be able to talk to people and work on things that are really meaningful is just an incredible gift.” Rick points out that many choose to use their visibility as a way of connecting people at home with the people producing the food, and that others become more involved in the political end of things, using their platform to work on school lunch issues, on the Farm Bill, etc. “They’re all really important. I’m just thankful that we have the opportunity.” Some notable examples:

owner/founder, Dressing Room restaurant
president/ceo, Wholesome Wave Foundation

With a kind of common sense, restaurateur mindset, we created a program – Wholesome Wave – which doubles the value of food stamps and WIC coupons in underserved communities when they are spent at farmers’ markets. It has been so wildly successful that we can’t keep up with it. We started in three states two and a half years ago with 10 farmers’ markets. We’re now in 18 states, nearly 200 markets including Washington D.C., and we are working with over 30 nonprofits. We’ve seen that, in both rural and urban communities, redemption rates for food stamps at farmers’ markets have gone up a minimum of 350% and as high as 2000%. In a few cases, when the incentives SNAP redemptions at these markets tapered only off 20%.

We have found that when we launch programs in these communities, $15 a week can be the tipping point. There’s an incredible misconception that these folks are going to fast food restaurants and just eating value meals. Their food budgets are so thinly stretched that they can’t even afford them. It’s instant noodles, it’s instant rice; it’s hamburger helper without the hamburger – that’s what these families are eating. We’ve found they have so effectively learned how to rub two pennies together that when they have $15 more a week, they make the decision to buy the right foods for their families – all of a sudden 30 to 40% of their food budget can actually go to fruit and vegetables.

I think that our responsibility as feeders is to reach out into these communities and in some way engage them, engage our elected officials. We are seeing it work on the municipal level, we’re seeing it work on the state level, and we’re certainly seeing positive indications on the federal level. Our philosophy is that we need to look at non-threatening opportunities where there are significant amounts of monies that could be shifted, and that’s where we, and others, are working; we’re want to demonstrate that dollars can be spent in a way that it creates permanent, sustainable change. We believe with $70 billion a year released into the market in the form of food stamps, it’s easier to move 5% of that towards locally grown agriculture than trying to get even 5% of conventional agricultural subsidies. We peek through a window into the policy world and see tremendous hope – there are some innovative answers that are right around the corner. (

“Wholesome Wave has gone into neighborhoods where obesity rates are the highest and a lot of people assume that these populations don’t know what to do with fresh fruits and vegetables. But what we’re proving is that the 23 1/2 million people in these urban food deserts have a deep desire to have these foods available.”

chef/owner Craft/’wichcraft
exceutive producer, “Hungry in America”

Like many of my fellow chefs, I’ve been raising money for hunger relief for years, and yet more people are hungry today than ever before. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about our nation’s agriculture: We have the resources to provide good, healthy food for everyone. So why aren’t we? When my wife, filmmaker Lori Silverbush, and her partner, Kristi Jacobson, decided to direct a documentary exploring the paradox, I became an executive producer, as did Mario Batali. “Hungry in America” will follow the history of hunger in the U.S.; it will look at the hungry, school lunches, the state of America’s food system, and the food stamp program – and point to solutions. We are aiming for a 2011 release, hopefully just in time to impact debate on the 2012 Farm Bill.

At the end of the day, it comes down to farm subsidies, and that’s something that government doesn’t want to touch, on both sides of the aisle. It’s true that 90% of farm subsidies go to farmers growing corn and soybeans, into the production of mass-produced products for high fructose corn syrup, and things like that – not into food. And this is not going to change when you have senators from Iowa who are going to fight for every dime that they can get to subsidize their corn farmers. Only if some of those subsidies go to small family farmers that are growing food to eat – which would mean they could lower the prices – will things change. (

chef/owner, Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, XOCO
founder, The Frontera Foundation

We decided to focus our efforts on the Frontera Farmers Foundation; we wanted not only to have relationships with farms that were supplying us, but any farms in the greater Chicago area. We knew that what farmers contribute to the community is invaluable. Farmers are creating community in two places – where they live, keeping their farm communities going, and in the cities where they’re bringing all of their “farmness” to the farmers’ markets, sharing with the people in the cities a touchstone for what it means to grow food, to take care of the earth, etc.

What we’re doing with the Foundation is raising money to give to farmers so they can develop their infrastructures to produce at a level where they can sell their products for a reasonable amount of money. In the last six years, we’ve given away $750,000 in small grants. Sometimes all they need is $10,000 to put in a watering system, buy a tractor or a hoop house or a greenhouse to become really productive, and get to a level of scale where they can produce food at a reasonable price so it doesn’t become a specialty item. I think we have to develop an alternative agriculture system, and the way we’re going to do that is not necessarily going to the Hill, but by supporting our farmers and helping them to grow to a reasonable size so they can get this food out to people at a reasonable price.

chef/owner, Think Food Group
founder, World Central Kitchen
chairman emeritus, D.C. Central Kitchen

This is only food for thought – yes, we need to be moving in this direction, yes we need to be supporting those small farmers; it’s important to America, to the world, to our future; it’s serious stuff. But if these issues aren’t part of our national dialogue then little will happen. If you go to today, and go to issues, you’ll see 36 different issues listed, but there is not one word is about food; it is about everything but food. Chefs are going to have to be more outspoken. If we don’t bring these issues to the top of the national agenda, we’re never going to be successful. That doesn’t mean that the approach is only political; we cannot expect politicians to solve every problem, I agree. But if we don’t bring our message to the White House, Congress, and other policy makers over the next 10-15 years, things will never, ever change. The truth is today there is a huge percentage of America that will not be able to afford farmers’ markets. So we need to bring the battle politically to Congress.

Let’s make sure that in the next Farm Bill the small farmers and producers we buy products from have the same kind of advantages and benefits as a fast food company – if they’re buying corn, their corn is subsidized by the government, and this is a very unfair advantage. We need to make sure everyone plays by the same rules. America is a country of economic freedom, so we need to be doing more, chefs like us, to make sure we start changing the rules a little bit. (;


Ann Cooper, aka “Renegade Lunch Lady,” is working to transform how children are fed in schools across the country via advocacy and grassroots activism. (

Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution campaign is dedicated to changing the way American children and families eat. (

Art Smith’s Common Threads provides after-school classes to low-income children, teaching them to cook wholesome and affordable meals. (

Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Foundation’s School Lunch Reform Program and The Edible Schoolyard network work to improve children’s eating choices through the public schools. (