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The Leading Voices in Food

E219: Training Chefs for Food Advocacy

Hosted by: Kelly Brownell (Duke)
October 25, 2023

Does the term Policy Advocate conjure up the image of a chef? Today we’re speaking with Katherine Miller, Founding Executive Director of the Chef Action Network, and author of the book “At The Table, The Chef’s Guide to Advocacy”. Katherine formerly served as the Vice President of Impact at the James Beard Foundation and serves as an adjunct professor at the Culinary Institute of America. She’s worked for 20 years at the intersection of policy, politics, and social impact, and says chefs have an important role to play in this space.

Katherine Miller was the founding executive director of the Chef Action Network and the former vice president of impact at the James Beard Foundation. She was the first food policy fellow at American University’s Sine Institute of Policy and Politics and is a Distinguished Terker Fellow at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs. Miller has built a 20-year career working at the intersections of policy, politics, and social impact. She develops and manages award-winning campaigns, trains activists around the world, and helps deliver millions of supporters – and hundreds of millions in funding – to efforts focused on global health, climate change, gender bias and violence, and food system reform. She is a member of the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences (IADAS) and serves on the Board of Directors of both the New Venture Fund and Re:Her DC. Miller is an adjunct professor at the Culinary Institute of America. She lives in Washington DC, on the land of the Anacostan and Nacotchtank people, with her husband, Lou, and their cat, Lily.

Interview Summary

Chefs are more and more visible in this advocacy and policy space. I assume that they’ve been doing this for a long time, but you see more attention to it now, which is nice. Let’s talk about sort of its fundamental concept of chefs being involved in the food system at this level. Why do you think chefs and other people in the restaurant industry are equipped to make the food system more just and sustainable?

I think that chefs are some of the greatest translators, right? Chefs, as we know them, are the people who cook us delicious meals or host us for events in our lives. But in reality they are taking the ingredients from the farmers and producers and fishermen and translating them to the plate to make them interesting and enjoyable for all of us, right? And the food system is incredibly complicated. It is deeply rooted. The root system overlaps and is incredibly complex. It’s off-putting for people to think about how they might get involved in food policy or even understand the different controls on our food. Chefs can really help tell a better story, right? They can take the what’s happening in the field and on the boats, and then they can put it on our plate, and they can help explain to us the stories behind all the food, how it’s grown, the things that we should be interested in, the decisions that we should make differently. I think they’re the ultimate translators and making the world a more delicious place.

That makes perfect sense! What inspired you to write your book, “At The Table”?

I’ve been working with the chef community for 10 years, first as a consultant and the founder of the Chef Action Network, and then working with the James Beard Foundation as the first vice president of advocacy and impact for the foundation. Then, after leaving the foundation, continued to work with organizations who are really interested in helping chefs step into policy arenas on things like healthy soils or food waste or medically-tailored meals. All those things are impacted by the policies that our state houses and our federal houses. And it’s hard. The restaurant industry is enormous. There are 11 million or so restaurant employees. There are tens of thousands of people who are considered chefs or leaders in the kitchen, and we weren’t going to reach them one Chef Bootcamp for Policy and Change at a time. You know, when I left the foundation in 2020 at the sort of tail end of the first year of COVID, we had over 1000 people on the waiting list to get into the Chef’s Bootcamp for Policy and Change. We knew we were on to something, but we didn’t really have the capacity to expand at scale. So, you know the great thing about a book is it can reach many chefs, culinary students, restaurant workers, farmers. And that’s the other thing – I think there’s a sort of duality to this idea of chef. It’s really anybody who’s a food system leader, anybody who is really interested in how the policies control our food system. I’m very excited to have a book out because I wanted this message and the examples and the tips and tools to reach the biggest audience that it could.

Boy, it’s nice to hear there’s so much interest among chefs and work of this type. I’m interested in whether this kind of thing is finding its way into culinary education. You have a position at the Culinary Institute of America, highly visible place. Is this the sort of thing that’s showing up in discussions in culinary schools and classes and the training people receive?

More and more. I really credit Robert Egger for so many things in life, the great food system advocate and co-founder of DC Central Kitchen. But Robert was one of the first to write an op-ed that was like, culinary education should include advocacy, right? Because in culinary schools all over the country and all over the world, we teach people about flavor, we teach people about dish composition, we teach people about cleaning their station, and being a good person on the line, right? But we don’t teach them about sustainability and that concerted way, we don’t teach them business school skills and we don’t really teach them about policies that impact their business, their sourcing, the way they run their restaurants. So that is growing. I think it’s also a benefit of this next generation of chefs and consumers even who are really leading with their values. They want to see people step into this arena. The Edelman Trust Survey, which comes out every year, shows that food systems and food communities are some of the most trusted networks in the world. These leaders of that community have sort of a right, but also an obligation to get involved. The thing I like about the book and the thing I love teaching is that it’s easy to do. It’s not as difficult as you think it is, but I really think that the students and the consumers are demanding a sort of values-based approach. We’re going to see all of the culinary schools add at least one class, if not more, of this type of training, I think in the future.

Let’s go a little bit deeper into the bootcamp. You’ve directed the James Beard Foundation’s Chefs Bootcamp for Policy and Change. Can you describe what goes on at the camp, and how this has affected your view on the chef’s role in the advocacy world?

The Chef’s Bootcamp for Policy and Change was an idea that Chef Michel Nischan and a James Beard trustee by the name of Eric Kessler had the idea for way back in 2012. They found me because I am a experienced trainer and facilitator. I’ve worked all over the world with, whether it be land advocates in Nigeria, health experts in China, folks in Australia, democracy in Lebanon, and they approached me and they said, “Hey, we have this idea. Chefs are highly visible. They are celebrities in their own right and we want to help them better use their voice.” That first bootcamp took place in July of 2012. We trained the first 15 chef advocates, and the penny sort of dropped for me that this was a community who are sitting in every single street corner. They have visible storefronts in every single community in America. They are trusted not to kill us, right? They are trusted to deliver something delicious and an amazing experience. They are networked heavily through the producers, both within their region and their city, but also globally in terms of what they source and how they buy. They have an authentic connection to fans, right? The bootcamp, which still continues to this day, trains 15 to 20 advocates at a time. The training module is still the same it was with a few tweaks in 2012. We really put them through their paces on introducing them to this food system and the complications of the food system. They also did role plays and learned techniques on how to be a better advocate. So how to create a message, how to reach out to their networks, how to use their social media profiles to talk about advocacy. And also, how to deal with the sort of haters of the world who might be like, “Shut up and get back to the kitchen”. So, a little bit of that. Then the other piece that is so important to the entire food movement is created community amongst themselves. Every bootcamp ends with a dinner cooked by the chefs, for the chefs together with what they source on the working agricultural farm that would take them to. That community then spills out and it grows and grows. So exponentially, you could grow from 15 to 150 to 1000. They take it with them, they teach their staff, they host their own bootcamps or programming in their own cities. So, the bootcamp is one piece of it, but it’s really about giving people the tips and tools they need to be an advocate, and then creating community amongst the chefs themselves and also their staffs and their greater community, and really just putting them into the places where they can use their voice to make a difference.

You know, it sounds really exciting! So, you have talked us through the process of how this education and training on advocacy and policy takes place. But let’s talk a little bit more about the issues. Let’s just say the Chef’s Bootcamp was happening today and we walked in and we could overhear the discussions. What would we hear people talking about? Would they be talking about how children can be educated about food, about sustainable food systems and regenerative agriculture? Would they be talking about? state law, federal policy? What kind of issues would be important to them today?

Today? The Farm Bill, right? Chefs do advocacy in three places really. They do it on the table, right, through what they source, how they market to their customers, the types of labor practices they have in their own restaurant, like that is a self a form of advocacy. They do it within their community. So, a lot of chefs will get involved with local feeding organizations, will get involved with school gardens, things that they can put their hands on and bring people into their restaurant or visit regularly. I see a lot of community interaction. Then there’s the hard and long work of state and federal policy reform. We are not going to be able to just uproot our entire food system and throw it out the window. Policy reform is gradual. It takes time and it takes a concerted effort. So, throughout each bootcamp or throughout different programs that I do, say with the Natural Resources Defense Council or programs that are run through No Kid Hungry, where alumni of the bootcamp have really gone on to shine is this federal policy piece. If you walked into a bootcamp today, you’d probably be hearing information about the Farm Bill, the impact of the Farm Bill on local regional food systems, the impact of the Farm Bill on food as medicine programs and SNAP programs, and really looking for ways a chef or a food system advocate could use their voice effectively to make the case for greater funding, to protect funding, to really encourage more progressive policies.

That sounds good. You brought up the Farm Bill, so let’s talk about that in a little more detail. The last Farm Bill was passed in 2018, so it needs to be passed again now and reauthorized. Vast amounts of money are at stake for this. You mentioned that chefs can advocate for protecting funds that have been used in the past for particular purposes, and also argue for new uses of funds. What would be some of the top priorities? You kind of alluded to several of these, but tell us a little bit more specifically about what the chefs might be fighting for.

The Farm Bill is our food bill. I think we don’t say that often enough. I think when we look at how the Farm Bill is constructed, we are looking at programs that are everything from specialty crops, i.e., fruits and vegetables, to the Supplemental Nutrition Programs that help people in times of need to not go hungry, to food as medicine programs that help us reach vulnerable populations with more fruits and vegetables at farmer’s markets or medically tailored meals in hospitals or in systems. The Farm Bill reaches into all of those things. One thing I like to say about chefs is they’re not monolithic. They’re not all running around saying this thing. They are well-informed narrators and translators of a complicated food system and encouraging people to pay more attention to things like the Farm Bill and more things like the political nature of our food system.

If we want in the long term to redirect subsidies to support more climate smart agriculture, or help us have local and resilient food systems, that’s going to happen through the Farm Bill. I was just recently with a bunch of chefs who were on Capitol Hill talking about healthy soil and the need to incentivize farmers through a bill called the Cover Act to help them change growing practices so that their soils would be healthier, and they could do more regenerative agriculture techniques. In a few weeks, there will be folks here really advocating to protect SNAP benefits. I think as we see a growing partisan divide and the growing divide on how to spend government money, SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is always going to be a constant target of that.

There’s a great anecdote in the book by chef Elle Simone, who talks very eloquently and proudly about the fact that at an early point in her life, she took SNAP benefits. She was broke, and she was financially insecure, and she needed help. She took those SNAP benefits at a time when she needed them, and they helped her complete her education and complete her path to the future. Now, she’s a cookbook author and the first woman of color to be on America’s Test Kitchen. She is a known celebrity chef around the country, and she wouldn’t be there, she will always say, if it hadn’t been for SNAP. So, somebody like Elle will come to Capitol Hill and tell that story to put a human face on a program that is often demonized by people who think there are other ways to spend money rather than make sure that people don’t come hungry.

You know, there’s a lot built into what you just said on lots of different levels. SNAP program, relationships with farmers, etc. Let’s talk about farmers for a moment. I know that chefs have, of course, always had a strong relationship with farmers because that’s where they secure what they serve in their restaurants, but it sounds like it’s going beyond that. This alliance now is out there in the bigger policy arena around issues of regenerative agriculture and things like that. I’m assuming you’ve seen some interesting cases of farmers and the chef community coming together to argue for a common purpose.

Chefs and farmers are natural partners. There wouldn’t be any food on our plates if there weren’t for farmers. The types of food and the types of vegetables and meat, and even seafood, fishermen, the world, you wouldn’t be able to put things on the plate without those humans. They produce amazing, delicious food, and they do it in ways that are better for the environment. It’s nutritionally dense. So, they’re a natural partnership, but they haven’t always worked together. In part, because they had completely opposite schedules. The farmers are up at 5:00 AM and go to bed at 2:00 PM and you know, chefs are out until 5:00 AM, and at work, they haven’t always been able to come together. But more intentionally, organizations are bringing them together. The Natural Resource Defense Council is working a lot with zero food print as a chef-led organization. Those two organizations are working in deep partnership to put chefs and farmers together regularly on Capitol Hill or in state houses, talking about things like the Cover Act, talking about regenerative agriculture, talking about the health that’s contained in our soil and how that translates into healthier and more delicious food. They are natural partners, and I’m really excited that they seem to be coming together more on common issues that really are about putting healthy and delicious things in front of us all.

Well, it makes good sense that those kind of partnerships have evolved to where they are now. Let me ask you a final question. Well, let’s just say I’m a chef and I meet you or people involved in this kind of sphere of work, and I’m thinking, boy, my life is pretty crazy. It’s a high stress life, very long hours, lots of decisions to be made and people to supervise, and all kinds of stuff going on in these restaurants. How in the world would I have time to do anything like this? And then also, what are the actionable steps that such a chef might take to help create a better food system?

It’s a great question, right? We’re all really busy people. Everybody’s calendar is full, whether it’s kids or parents to take care of, whether it’s jobs, whether it’s volunteering, and we all look at our calendars, and we’re like. How could I possibly fit one thing else in here? The number one tip I give chefs and anybody who really wants to be an advocate is you learn to say no first. You learn to look at what you care most about and decide that that is the thing that you are going to focus on. And all the rest of it, you’re going to say no very politely to. So, in the beginning of work with chefs, I did an audit of dozens of restaurants and essentially chefs were being asked to donate on average about $50,000 each year to dozens of organizations in their local community and even nationally. When we think about that from a fundraising perspective, if you donated $50,000 to one organization, you would be a top donor to that organization. You would have a totally different relationship with them. I really encourage all of us, but especially the chef community, to take a deep look at the issue that drives you most, whether it’s hunger, the environment, ending violence in our communities, mentorship, whatever it is. And really, one, pick that issue and prioritize that issue. Get to know the organizations and the experts that are already working in it, right? We all think that we’re so smart and we must be the first people to have thought about X, Y, and Z, and you’re not, right? There are lots of experts in the field, and there are now even experts in the field of chef advocacy. There are dozens of organizations actually in the appendix of my book that point you in the direction of different issues that you might want to get involved in. So, get to know the experts. And number three, take a baby step. Schedule an appointment with an organization, sign a petition, do some research. Just take a baby step into, okay, now I’m going to learn more. Now I’m going to do something. And it doesn’t have to be a big thing. And then your advocacy will go from there. I’m a political activist at heart, and I want everybody to make sure that they’re registered to vote, and vote because that is the ultimate form of advocacy and probably the biggest baby step that we can all take once we’ve picked an issue and become informed on that issue. There are other tips and tools in the book. I’m all about opening conversation, not closing conversation. So I really encourage people through the book and through some exercises in it to figure out their own narrative that opens conversation, their own set of questions that turns them into sort of active listeners and not lecturers. I think food certainly has enough judgment in it that it doesn’t need advocates pointing fingers at each other, talking about how one’s point of view is better than the others. It’s really simple to get involved. The first step is say no. Pick the one issue that’s most important to you. Do the work and get to know the issues and the experts. Take a baby step, register to vote, vote, and then you can grow from there.


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