By Jane Black
Sunday, January 25, 2009
Can the combination of Barack Obama and a $500-a-plate meal of grass-fed beef in a rustic guajillo chili sauce and a warm tart of local apples and pears change the world? Or at least the way America eats?
Alice Waters, the renowned chef behind Berkeley's Chez Panisse and the doyenne of the local foods movement, sure hopes so. That's why she and a group of fellow food activists invited a passel of prominent Washingtonians to a series of homey charity dinners during last week's inaugural festivities. There was D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, sipping an aperitif near a table of heirloom country ham at the glitzy event at the Phillips Collection. At another locale, Daniel Boulud, probably the country's top French chef, served crab salad with green apple gelee and celery root remoulade under the charming misimpression that this counts as "homey."
The aim of it all? To ignite a conversation about food policy. With Obama, a man who actually knows the price of arugula, at the country's helm, these activists think they finally see their chance to recast the national debate about food. It's not about organic fruits and vegetables for sunchoke-munching yuppies and elite big-city chefs, they say. It's about healthier food in schools, programs to help food-stamp recipients buy nutritious fruits and vegetables and tax breaks for small family farmers. "Good food is not for snooty elitists," declared Ayelet Waldman, a novelist and Obama fundraiser who helped organize the dinners. "It's an issue for everybody. And now we have control of the dialogue."
To which one can only raise a glass of Champagne and say, "Bonne chance."
Because it's not that food is unimportant, even in the midst of two wars and, as we are endlessly reminded, the worst economy since the Great Depression. Nor does the Obamas' decision to retain the current White House chef, Cristeta Comerford, prove that the new president isn't interested in food. (She's a good chef. And it's essentially a banqueting job that no celebrity chef would seriously consider.) And it's not even because a pricey charity dinner -- even one that raised $100,000 for local anti-hunger and farmers market organizations -- is a curious way to send a message of inclusiveness. The problem for the food folks is the message itself.
"They don't have a central, core message," James Thurber, an expert on lobbying and the director of American University's Center on Congressional and Presidential Studies, told me. That, or they're not getting it out. "Is this about reducing obesity in schools?" he asks. "Is it about pesticides on the farms? It's a wonderful thing to try to change policy, but what policy are they trying to change?"
Well, they're trying to change them all. And why not, they say. After all, there's no one policy for improving food in America. To bring real change, policymakers need to look at the system more holistically -- because everything, as foodies see it, is connected. Federal subsidies of grain and corn make it cheap to produce meat. Industrial meat production, which takes advantage of cheap feed, is responsible for about one-fifth of the world's greenhouse gases. Eating too much meat and too many processed foods made with corn products such as high fructose corn syrup has contributed to the sharp spike in obesity over the past 30 years.
Michael Pollan, the author of the bestselling "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and the spiritual leader of American foodies, summed it up in an open letter to the new president in the New York Times Magazine last October. He urged Obama to make "reform of the entire food system one of the highest priorities of your administration: unless you do, you will not be able to make significant progress on the health care crisis, energy independence or climate change."
That's laudably nuanced thinking, in my opinion. But is it too fuzzy for lawmakers to handle? Would it be better to follow other lobbying groups' lead? Whether you're Detroit, which just won $25 billion in bailout money, or the International Sleep Products Association, which is currently asking Congress to add a $5,000 tax credit for consumers to buy furniture to the new stimulus bill, the key to success is focus. By contrast, the sustainable food movement is asking for a fundamental overhaul of the entire U.S. food system -- and everybody has their our own ideas of how to begin. Waters wants to see an organic garden on the White House lawn and at schools across the country. Washington chef Jose Andres's top priorities are a secretary of food and mandating that gastronomy be taught in every classroom. Bravo's "Top Chef" co-host, Tom Colicchio, wants mandatory disclosure on all genetically modified food. And those are just three of the chefs who cooked last weekend.
The movement's diversity does have its benefits. It has successfully raised awareness among a broad mass of supporters. About 85,000 people descended on San Francisco last August for Slow Food Nation, the first national food conference. Many chefs -- and not only chefs such as Waters, who's famous for her obsession with fresh, local ingredients -- now believe that their job is about more than simply serving good food. It's about standing up for local farming and working against agribusiness. There's not a week that goes by that someone I'm talking to doesn't start a sentence with the words: "It all changed after I read 'The Omnivore's Dilemma.' "
But raising awareness is only the first step. The second, crucial one is to call for specific action. Too often, says Thurber, activists focus too much on tactics instead of strategy. He points to the Darfur campaign. Everybody saw the posters and agreed that the situation was tragic. But the campaign never proposed any remedies, so it never achieved any real change. Without concrete follow-up, it will be the same for Waters's inaugural meals. "The tactic here is having a dinner," says Thurber. "It gets attention, but then what?"
Chefs could take a page from their own playbook. In 1998, 27 high-profile chefs joined an environmental campaign called "Give Swordfish a Break" and agreed to take the endangered North Atlantic swordfish off their menus to reduce demand. Within six months, more than 100 chefs had joined, and President Bill Clinton called for a ban on the sale and import of smaller fish. International quotas were adopted in 1999. By 2002, a scientific report declared that the swordfish population had reached 94 percent recovery. A similar campaign against the dangerously trendy Chilean sea bass also successfully allowed ocean stocks to be replenished.
We've come a long way since Waters first pestered a first-term Bill Clinton for a White House garden and compost heap. Obama's agenda may be packed. But thanks in part to Waters and others, the word is out that food matters. And it's time for the food lobby to start making specific demands.
A food czar, which comes up on many activists' lists, might be a good rallying point. A Cabinet-level official who sees the world through a broad food lens could help disparate agencies work together to promote organic foods, diversify American farms and support local growers.
Better yet: Advocate for radical change this year when Congress renews the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act, which includes $21 billion annually for programs including school breakfast and lunch. Currently, cash-strapped schools are forced to rely on government surplus and sales of soda and other junk foods, a combination that results in millions of French fry-centric meals. Stricter school nutrition standards and increased funding for fruits and vegetables could change that. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack indicated in his confirmation hearing this month that he sees better nutrition as a tool for defeating childhood hunger.
Choosing one issue doesn't mean that food activists have to abandon their broader agenda or leave anyone behind. When it comes to food, chefs know that it's a mistake to crowd too many flavors onto a plate. All they need to do is apply the same principle to food politics.
Jane Black is a reporter for the Food section of The Washington Post.