WASHINGTON — On Tuesday, five-time James Beard Award winner and “Top Chef” judge Tom Colicchio gave his knives a break and spent a few hours sharpening his political message instead.
On the menu: School lunch.
Colicchio was one of more than 30 chefs who took to Capitol Hill to meet with members of Congress about the Childhood Nutrition Act, which is up for reauthorization before the end of the year.
“The standards are there, they’re working and we should keep them in place,” says Colicchio, who is also the co-founder of Food Policy Action and Chef Action Network.
The Childhood Nutrition Act was originally passed in 1966 and must be reauthorized by Congress every five years. In 2010, new nutritional standards were introduced with the law to increase the amount of fruits, vegetables and whole grains served in school cafeterias.
Ninety-five percent of school districts in the U.S. have implemented the nutritional changes, but not everyone is drinking the low-sugar Kool-Aid. Researchers from the University of Vermont found that even though healthier options are being provided to students, they’re not necessarily being consumed.
But Colicchio, a father of three, says that’s no reason to reverse the standards.
“It’s worthwhile. Kids need nutrition to learn, and this idea that carnival food is something that we should serve in school — it just doesn’t make sense to me,” he says.
“We’re the adults here. These are children. And for as long as I’ve been around a lunchroom, there have always been complaints about school lunch … I think if you polled any chef here, they wouldn’t say that school lunch is the reason they are chefs. But we can make it better; we can make it more nutritious.”
In addition to pushing peas over pizza, the Childhood Nutrition Act provides more than 20 million free or reduced-priced lunches and 11 million free or reduced-priced breakfasts to students each year. Colicchio says upholding the current nutritional standards is especially important to these recipients.
“For a lot of people participating in the school lunch program, this is what they’re eating for the day; this is their nutrition. So I think we have an obligation to make sure that it’s as nutritious and wholesome as possible,” he says.
D.C. chefs Victor Albisu, Spike Mendelsohn and Marjorie Meek-Bradley were among those to visit lawmakers with Colicchio. “Top Chef” host Padma Lakshmi and “Top Chef All-Stars” winner Richard Blais were also in attendance.
Colicchio says chefs have a powerful voice when it comes to food policy. “People listen to us; they trust us.” And reauthorization of the law doesn’t mean it’s time to rest.
“We made progress and we’ve got to keep making progress. I don’t even buy into this, ‘Let’s hold the line,’” Colicchio says. “I really believe that nutrition is the key to education and education is the key to upward mobility and it keeps us competitive … and it’s something we should start taking much more seriously.”