Spending three days at Blackberry Farm with 14 other chefs in association with the James Beard Foundation is my kind of summer camp. A gorgeous resort in the Great Smoky Mountains, a bounty of vegetables, housemade cheese and, of course, lots of bourbon. You know what I’m sayin’?
Well, we got all that, as well as an education that could save some lives, at the Chefs Boot Camp for Policy & Change earlier this month.
In addition to chef’s play — butchering and breaking down animals, harvesting vegetables, touring the grounds and making family-style meals — we came together to learn how we could make our voices stronger and more meaningful for food policy issues in the United States.
The boot camp was organized by the Beard Foundation. They brought in experts from Pew Charitable Trusts and Hattaway Communications to bring us up to speed on current food policy issues, discuss the organizations we each currently support and lead a discussion about how we can use our influence and the support of the Beard Foundation to influence some of the food policy issues we face today. The training was interactive, and we had some practice Q&A sessions to strengthen how we talk about each of our organizations.
I recently gave a media interview about what it’s like to be a food TV celebrity, and the first thing I said was, “It opens doors and gives weight to your voice, which you can use to help your city, the economy, children or whatever cause you choose to support.”
I understand that people listen to my opinion, and I have a responsibility to the organizations and causes I work with to make it count. For example, I recently began working with ProStart through the National Restaurant Association. ProStart helps high school students prepare for careers in the restaurant industry. They have training, competitions and provide opportunities for scholarships.
Like me, all the chefs work with one or more organizations with a food-related cause. We work to raise money or awareness for issues surrounding food allergies, childhood hunger, obesity, access to better school lunches and so on.
Often we are asked to speak about more complex topics surrounding the food industry, and while we all work closely with farmers and purveyors, we aren’t experts on all issues.
For example, I was shocked to learn that four times the amount of antibiotics produced for humans goes into animal feed each year. This allows companies that use this practice to crowd animal pens and raise more animals in a shorter period of time.
But it also creates “superbugs,” nasty viruses that are growing resistant to antibiotics and can hop to people. I saw a video about kids who had died as a result. The overuse of antibiotics by the animal agriculture industry is making the drugs less useful for the times when we actually need them.
This is just one example of a serious food-policy issue that came to light in our training. By the end of our two days of discussion, we were all fired up and asking, “What’s next? Where do we go from here? How can we make an impact?”
This week, we were able to take immediate action on the antibiotic issue. Pew Charitable Trusts came to us with a petition to urge the FDA to fix this. The organization had a few dozen signatures from major chefs. We all signed on, tweeted about it and urged our chef friends, fans and followers to speak out. In the end, we had 281 chefs sign the petition and more than 200,000 Americans asked the FDA to rein in antibiotics. The government is looking this over now, and we are hopeful there is positive change coming.
Long-term, the participating chefs and the Beard Foundation are considering several options on how to move forward, but we all want to be an active part of an advisory council, knowing our voices and the support of the foundation are stronger together. We have all been e-mailing non-stop since we returned from the farm.
The most rewarding part of the trip for me was forming new friendships with talented chefs from around the country, chefs who are motivated to help make a difference. I knew about a third of the chefs going in, but I really feel like the experience at Blackberry Farm is something none of us will forget. I hope we have many more opportunities to work together over the years.
Mike Isabella is the chef/owner of Graffiato and chef/partner of Bandolero. He is Food & Wine magazine’s The People’s Best New Chef Mid-Atlantic winner for 2012, and in 2011, he was the runner-up on “Top Chef All-Stars.” This fall, Isabella will publish his first cookbook, “Mike Isabella’s Crazy Good Italian,” and next year, he plans to open two new restaurants, Kapnos and G.