Q & A: Tom Colicchio talks childhood hunger
July 6th, 2010
02:00 AM ET
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Tom Colicchio is a busy man. In addition to his recent fact-finding Gulf Seafood mission, the chef, restaurateur and Top Chef head judge testified before the House of Representatives, advocating for H.R.5504, the Improving Nutrition for America’s Children Act.

He spoke with Eatocracy about his family's fight against childhood hunger, the curse of cheap calories and the sheer terror of appearing before our nation's elected officials.

(Stay tuned for part two of the interview tomorrow on the topic of Gulf Coast seafood and the power of social media to carry a message.)

Eatocracy: What is your personal connection with school lunch reform?

Tom Colicchio: My mother managed a school cafeteria. A couple of years back, my brothers and I were trying to get her to retire. Sitting down with her, we said "Mom, you're always complaining that you're tired. You're fine. You don't have to work anymore."

She said, "I work because I know the kids coming into my lunchroom and the kids coming for breakfast - this is probably the only thing they're going to eat all day."

I grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Seventy percent of the kids there qualified for free or reduced lunch, and there were thousands of kids in school. She said that she knew it was the only thing they were going to eat and she was fighting to get fresh vegetables and fruits in the lunchroom. That stuck with me.

This was about six years ago. Prior to that, I thought it was a job that when we were a little older, she decided she wanted to work. Then it became clear that it was part of her social life. But it was never put in terms where she actually realized she was affecting people's lives.

That really resonated with me. It really brought home all the work we've been doing with groups like Share Our Strength, Feeding America and groups like that. It really put a face to it.

Eatocracy: Is there any connection in your day-to-day life now?

Tom Colicchio: More recently, my wife [filmmaker Lori Silverbush] started mentoring a young girl from Brooklyn and she would come to the house and she would eat and then she'd say "Oh, I'm full. Can I bring this home?" And we realized what she was doing; she was bringing it home for her siblings.

When food stamps run out halfway through the month, these kids are hungry. And they're fed sweetened juice water, just to put something in their stomach; it's not nice. There's this old adage that you can't make the food better at lunch because they don't want it, they don't like it. I don't buy that.

When we bring her to our house, she wants a salad. She ate asparagus for the first time and she couldn't believe how good it was. We bring her strawberry picking and she had no idea that strawberries came out of the ground and didn't realize how good they were - how delicious it was.

Two episodes ago on Top Chef, we were in a school lunchroom in Washington, and these kids wanted seconds and thirds because the food was delicious.

Eatocracy: In your ideal world, what would be on every kid's plate?

Tom Colicchio: In an ideal world for me, school lunch would be free for everybody. There's a great case made for that. There's a woman named Jane Poppendieck who wrote a book called 'Free For All: Fixing School Food in America' - a great read that outlines school lunch from the very beginning, from what Harry Truman started. It was in response to recruits showing up for the Second World War, who were malnourished and couldn't fight.

Now we have the opposite. We had a Major General who testified that forty percent of new recruits going into the service fail out because they're obese. It's not from overfeeding. This is what people don't understand: obesity is a symptom of poverty. It's not a lifestyle choice where people are just eating and not exercising. It's because kids - and this is the problem with school lunch right now - are getting sugar, fat, empty calories - lots of calories - but no nutrition.

Eatocracy: Cheap calories.

Tom Colicchio: Exactly - cheap calories. And they're hungry, they're eating more cheap food. Ideally, you want to see whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean protein. It shouldn't be pizza...for me it's not even about how good it is - if it's good, then kids will eat more of it. You need something more than chicken nuggets and pizza.

There's a school of thought, this was about fifteen years ago, where kids are the clients coming into the school lunchroom, so let's make this look like a fast food line. That's what they tried to mimic and that's what the kids get. My feeling is yeah, the kids want that, but my seventeen year old will sit in front of the X-Box and not take a shower if I let him.

We're adults. We're the ones who should teach the kids what's good to eat. I don't think the government should ever regulate what we eat at home, but we're feeding them in school with tax dollars. Quite frankly, if my tax dollars are being spent to feed kids, I'd rather feed them better food.

Eatocracy: Did you have any inkling you'd be a person with a big platform to explore these issues?

Tom Colicchio: No, I didn't. I've been involved almost as long as I've been a chef, trying to give back - especially when it comes to hunger. Fundraisers for Share Our Strength, Food Bank of New York - I'm on the board of Children of Bellevue in New York and Health Watch International.

When I started doing the show, I didn't realize it was going to be as successful as it is. My feeling is, if you're going to be called a celebrity, you might as well use it for some good. It's better to testify for school lunches in front of Congress than get drunk in a bar somewhere and misbehave.

Eatocracy: What does it feel like to get hauled before the House? Did you feel like you were in trouble?

Tom Colicchio: I spent some time in the principal's office when I was a kid, so I know the feeling. It's very intimidating.

My wife and I are working on a documentary about domestic hunger; this is how the whole thing came about. We were working with a group called FRAC [Food and Research Coalition] in D.C. They asked me to do this.

I said okay, but I got nervous, because you don't know what kind of questions they're going to ask and you don't want to completely blow it. So we had a written testimony - and I was nervous! I've been in front of a TV camera, but I was nervous.

Eatocracy: I read that you said it was surreal.

Tom Colicchio: Totally. I went in the offices first and there were some photo ops. Then they said we're going to get ready and go and then all of a sudden - you're there. You open up a door and you're there. Wow!

Eatocracy: So it's not your eighth grade class trip.

Tom Colicchio: Noooooo. But, you know, it was great. There was a good hour that went by - Secretary Vilsack gave his testimony and there was some Q and A and then there were four panelists who went on after him. So after seeing the back and forth, you kind of get the lay of the land.

But I was the first to testify and I started and I was like, "Um um um um..." Deep breath! Okay, good.

Eatocracy: So what's scarier - going before the House, or anything you've ever done on Top Chef?

Tom Colicchio: Top Chef is not scary because it's edited, number one, and I got a pretty good idea they want me to be the voice of reason, so they edit out all the bad stuff.

But no – I was nervous because you sit there and you realize...they say there are two things you never want to see made - sausage and law. And I know how to make sausage, so now I'm just making law. It was pretty cool.

Eatocracy: Did you ever think you'd be considered the voice of reason?

Tom Colicchio: There were three of us who were the voice of reason. And one person from The Heritage Foundation said that if children are getting obese, then maybe we should stop feeding them. I was like [sarcastically] "okay." He became my adversary right away and I managed to get a few digs in afterward.

It is intimidating. You have Representatives up there and you don't know what questions are going to come - if it's going to be a friendly question or a hostile question. ow, this is a bipartisan bill - one of the few pieces of law that is going to be bipartisan and it has support. It's eight billion dollars over ten years, and they have to find the offsets. So the bill is up for vote and they'll find the offsets afterward, so there was a lot of discussion about where the money is going to come from - which was way above my pay grade,

It was one of those things - you check it off, been there done that. Great. Next?

Eatocracy: What is the thing that's standing in the way? Who can possibly argue that feeding kids more and better and getting them to exercise is a bad thing?

Tom Colicchio: Well, here's the thing. There are two bills right now. There's a bill in the Senate that Blanche Lincoln from Arkansas is sponsoring and her bill asks for four and a half billion dollars over ten years. Representative George Miller from California is in the House and his bill is asking for eight billion. So that's the big question - which bill is going to pass. Obama asked for ten billion over ten years, so they scaled that back a little.

The question I have, and I didn't get a chance to ask is - if we were deficit neutral or if we had a surplus right now, what would they be asking for? Probably a lot more. You need even more to push the needle here.

My understanding is that there hasn't been additional funding to this bill because it's been up for votes for several years - they let it go by and they just reissue it with the same amount of money. I don't think there's been any additional funding since 1973.

It's misleading because the schools turn in the numbers they get reimbursed and now there are more kids going into the system, so there's more money going into the system. This is money on top of that. This is money for more after school feeding, more breakfast feedings, summer feeding programs - things like that. Kids - just because school is out - there's still need.

The one argument that was made is that there's so much money going into social programs - this is just more money going to the same group of people. But it's needed.

Stay tuned for more from Chef Colicchio on the topic of Gulf Coast seafood. Previously: Top Chef Tom Colicchio believes in Gulf Coast seafood and stops by Eatocracy HQ to share a #fishsongs contribution

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