interviews

Tom Colicchio on His New Movie and Ending Food Insecurity in America

"I’m always a chef first."Photo: Clint Spaulding/PatrickMcMullan.com

Tom Colicchio has a lot of projects, and tomorrow, his latest debuts: A Place at the Table, a film Colicchio executive produced, explores the struggle that 50 million food-insecure people face in the country and offers a solution to end the problem by 2015. We sat down with the chef to talk about the film (which was co-directed by his wife), his own efforts to end hunger, and the asininity of the term "celebrity chef."

Did something specific make you decide to get involved in this movement to stop hunger? A story or moment that made you say, "This is what I want to do"?
I think our entire industry is very focused on this, and for 25 years, I’ve been involved in raising money for various hunger organizing, whether it’s City Harvest or Meals on Wheels, so many organizations. Not just me but the entire industry. Not just that but we’ve become kind of like first responders, Hurricane Sandy blows through, and restaurants are right there. Either raising money or going there or directly going and helping out. 9/11 was the same thing, we were near the site feeding people. That’s originally how I got involved through Share our Strength and Taste of the Nation.

A couple of years back, my wife [Place co-director Lori Silverbush] was mentoring a young woman. She had some learning disabilities and she was in public school. Public school wasn’t able to adequately deal with her, some of her issues. So we got her into a private program, because the city, if they can’t take care of the kid’s need, they can actually go to private school and the city pays for it. So, we figured this out and we got her into the program. But this school didn’t have a breakfast program or a lunch program, so she ended up scrounging around for food, and we got a call from the principal saying, “She’s in the garbage, scrounging around for food.”

We had no idea that this is what she was eating all day, so that got Lori to thinking — and we tried to help out and we’d send her home with food and she’d come home and eat our food — we just realized we were putting a Band-Aid on it. We would feed her and the next she was hungry then she was hungry, so Lori came home and said, “I wanna make a film about hunger.” Lori is a narrative filmmaker and she reached out to Kristi [Jacobson, Silverbush's co-director], who is a doc filmmaker, and then we just started jumping in.

A big point of the movie was that charities weren’t enough, to the point of just putting Band-Aids on things, but people still want to help, so what can they find on Takepart.com?
Charities aren’t a bad thing. I think a lot of well-meaning people do what they can do, and I still do those events. I’m not going to stop, for now until the government responds with something.

At Takepart.com, Participant Media — aside from funding the film — immediately started working on this outreach program, and it’s really dynamic. All these various organizations — whether it’s SOS, Feeding America — are together in one area one. They’re all working on the same issue. That’s the first thing, discussing how they can all work together. Plus, the average person can come to the site and find out information, work with their community.

There is one site they can connect to that I’m involved with called Food Policy Action. At that site, what we do is rate Congress on how they vote vis-à-vis various food issues, so what we do is we determine whether or not, it’s a good food policy or bad food policy, and we’ll grade congress depending on how they vote on it. So, as an individual going to that site, once you sign on, we’ll send you information that the bill is coming up, we’ll send you information about the bill, whether or not it’s good or bad food policy, and then, you punch in your zip code, and you get right in to your representative and your senator, and you tell them how you want them to vote. It’s very difficult for the average person to know when this stuff is happening unless you’re watching C-Span.

And it’s all the really interesting stuff.
Exactly. Anyway, this is really easy for you, on your phone, when it’s coming up, you know that this is coming up in a week or so, so you can get involved and stay engaged. The other stuff on the site, there is a really cool thing: SNAP alumni, where we’re featuring business people, actors, athletes, musicians, talking about their experience on SNAP. Telling the stories that it makes a difference, because too often we look at SNAP as a handout, a program like welfare, as opposed to nutrition.

We’re making investments in the future of the country, because now people who have a leg up because they have some early nutrition either through WIC programs or SNAP, now they can go on and be productive and they can be the next leaders of our country.

It’s funny you mention handouts, because I was just about to ask you what you would say to the other side, the side that argues, “Well, once more money becomes available, nutrition will be sacrificed for birthday cakes”?
Well, I think that, most people would like to buy healthier food; again this young woman that we were mentoring, she would come to the house and ask for salad, again that was her treat.

It’s very easy to demonize people for making bad choices, but then you've got to look at, Well, do they really have a choice? Because when you look at what’s really inexpensive, it’s fast food. And, why is it inexpensive? Why does a peach cost more money than a fast-food hamburger? Well, then you've got to look at subsidies, what your tax dollars are subsidizing. Why are tax dollars supporting an industry that is poisoning our kids?

Well, if some of those subsidies are moved over and we can make fruits and vegetables more affordable, more accessible, well, then people actually have a choice and we can get into that, and start educating people and get them to understand what good nutrition looks like.

So, we have to stop that sort of labeling. It’s not helpful. I think that eventually, once we get to a point that if you’re not going to vote, if you’re not going to get behind these various food program, you’re going to be labeled, “pro-hunger.”

Now that you’ve got all these things on your plate, do you consider yourself a chef or a TV host or a spokesperson?
Chef. I would say chef-activist. I’m always a chef first, that’s why this whole idea of “celebrity chef” is the most asinine thing to me.

Why don’t you like it?
I’m a chef first and a celebrity second. I think chef-celebrity, but I certainly didn’t start cooking because I wanted to a be a celebrity. It’s a silly label. But yeah, somewhere in there, activist.

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