Celebrity chef Tom Colicchio probably doesn't cook much these days. Having built his reputation preparing expensive entrées for his well-heeled customers at Craft Restaurants, Colicchio is now cooking up liberal food policy to expand the government's ever-encroaching role in how we eat, and what.
His self-promotion schedule and branding pursuits could put Kim Kardashian to shame. He's the star and producer of two reality shows on Bravo, Top Chef and Best New Restaurant. Colicchio owns several pricy restaurants and "ethical sandwich" joints on both coasts. He lends his name to a collection of expensive artisanal kitchenware, including a coffee mug for only $46.
But apparently television and restaurant fame don't hold enough gravitas for this wannabe political star. Over the last few years, Chef Colicchio has emerged as the face of the food movement, culinary elitists who insist that every bite of food is a political statement (think climate-change folks going after your shopping cart instead of your SUV).
Testifying before Congress a few years ago about the school-lunch program whet his appetite for politics. Since then, Colicchio has visited Capitol Hill several times to promote mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods, and as the guest of organic farmer Representative Chellie Pingree (D., Maine) he even attended the State of the Union address in January. No doubt the chef will want a seat at the table to spin the now controversial update to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, due for approval later this year.
To further impact food policy, Colicchio co-founded Food Policy Action, a PAC that scores lawmakers on how liberal they vote on food issues. Far from reflecting a consensus of top food and nutrition experts, the FPA scorecard represents a narrow view of some of the nation's most ideologically divisive activists. The group grades House members and senators on whether they "promote policies that support healthy diets, reduce hunger at home and abroad, improve food access and affordability, uphold the rights and dignity of food and farm workers . . . and reduce the environmental impact of farming and food production." The implication is that members of Congress who don't agree with Colicchio and his leftist cohort oppose healthy food and the reduction of hunger and are indifferent to degradation of the environment.
In a video released during this month's TEDxManhattan, Colicchio attempted to credit FPA for the loss of one Republican congressional seat last year because the candidate was "terrible on food issues" — a stretch given several other factors contributing to the congressman's defeat. The PAC is gearing up to challenge Republicans on "food security" issues, including labeling GMO products and restoring cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The FPA board is filled with Obama-administration sympathizers, including Gary Hirshberg, an organic-food cheerleader and the Stonyfield chairman, and Robin Schepper, the former executive director of the Let's Move! campaign, which just celebrated its five-year anniversary with the first lady gushing over her own bean-kale burgers and curried pumpkin with peas.
To buttress his political agenda, Colicchio serves up one amuse-bouche after another of half-truths and platitudes. Despite hundreds of billions spent each year to feed people in America, Colicchio insists that "we don't have the political will in this country to fix hunger." His biggest whopper is that the only reason that people prefer fast food to fresh produce is that the latter is more expensive, as if the demand for Big Macs reflected only people's economic decisions and had nothing to do with what they like.
The chef is a big defender of SNAP, which he calls "one of the best-run programs in the country," and is furious about the 1 percent funding cut for it in last year's farm bill. He insists that poor people are obese not because of bad choices but because "the inability to afford healthy food is the biggest problem for millions struggling with obesity," even though the program allows for the purchase of fruits and vegetables (fresh and frozen), lean meats, dairy, and other healthy items.
Serving as a mouthpiece for liberal foodies has paid off for Colicchio; MSNBC named him its first-ever food correspondent last month. (MSNBC host Alex Wagner is married to former White House chef Sam Kass, another food scold, who banned boxed macaroni and cheese from the White House kitchen.)
If you're looking for practical dinner advice, look elsewhere. Colicchio will continue his "food is political" crusade. Gone are the days of mindless food shopping; culinary elitists like Colicchio want a trip to the grocery store to be a political experience. "In today's world, it is impossible to separate our food culture from the politics and policies that shape our choices as consumers and taxpayers, whether we're aware of them or not," Colicchio said about his new gig.
Of course, Colicchio is just one line chef in the busy liberal kitchen of shamers and elitists determined to strip the joy and fellowship out of eating. The main problem with this movement isn't its self-proclaimed noble intentions: it's the impracticality of its core tenets, which are largely unattainable for most Americans. Consider the new executive director of the Let's Move! campaign, Deb Eschmeyer. Her central qualification for the job? She sought to fight obesity by encouraging city kids to go to local farms for organic produce.
But the culinary elitists behind the food movement aren't truly interested in how to get dinner on the table. Theirs is a political crusade disguised as a public-health campaign. They use food as a wedge to further divide Americans between blue plates and red plates.
Listen, for example, to Colicchio's comparison of the food movement with social and political struggles of the past: "At some point, we need to take this social movement and turn it into a political movement," Colicchio said during the Food for Tomorrow conference. "It's what happened in other social movements as well, whether it was civil rights or whether it was marriage equality."
The hyperbole is not only bad politics but will do nothing to improve Americans' health.
Julie Kelly is a cooking instructor, food writer, and owner of Now You're Cooking in Orland Park, Ill. You can reply to her on Twitter @Julie_Kelly2 Jeff Stier is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research, and you can reply to him on Twitter @JeffaStier