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2017 Leadership Award Winner Chellie Pingree

Emily Carrus

October 23, 2017

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Member of Congress, Maine’s First Congressional District

Honored for her support of national policies that promote healthy food, local and regional food systems, and organic agriculture.

Congresswoman Chellie Pingree feels just as much at home on Capitol Hill as she does on a cow pasture: when she’s not working on matters like shaping the next Farm Bill as a member of the House’s agricultural appropriations committee, Pingree spends time at her home on the offshore island of North Haven, Maine, where she owns an organic saltwater farm, inn, and restaurant.

It’s because of this duality that Pingree’s voice rings particularly resonant during agriculture related discussions in the nation’s capital. “I go home on the weekends and the practical questions that we are dealing with are right in front of me: how federal rules will apply to a small farm when it comes to irrigation water or composting systems, for example,” she says. “I can get up and say, ‘Wait a minute: I have a chicken-slaughtering facility, and that’s not how it works...’”

Remarkably, neither farming nor politics was an aspiration of Pingree’s in her youth—but after high school she moved to a small, remote cabin in Maine, and her curiosity about living off the land was piqued. She devoured literature on homesteading, organic gardening, and food preservation, and eventually enrolled at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor for more formal study on topics such as soil science—which she would subsequently put into practice when she and her husband moved back to North Haven and established a small farm.

Her interest in the goings-on of her small community of just a few hundred residents put her on an unplanned political trajectory. She became the town’s tax assessor “because no one else wanted the job”; served on the school board; and became a state senator after a customer at her vegetable stand recruited Pingree to run. Her passions for better food and farming policy were ignited when she joined the legislature’s agricultural committee, and she furthered that mission through a successful Congressional bid that landed her in Washington, D.C., in 2008.

A self-described “staunch defender of organic standards and research,” Pingree’s passion and experience have yielded her great influence on food and agricultural funding decisions and on matters ranging from sustainable seafood to school lunches. Pingree also spends significant effort advocating for and establishing meaningful connections between food policy makers, farmers, chefs, and consumers, because, as she says, it “can’t just be Washington and lobbyists making all the decisions.”

“She’s one of the few members of Congress interested in issues related to growing food as opposed to animal feed or biofuel,” says author and educator Marion Nestle, a 2013 JBF Leadership Award recipient. “She is fighting the good fight at a time when that kind of commitment is rare and badly needed.”

The fight has long impelled Pingree. “Forty-some years ago I was considered sort of like a hippie back-to-the-lander. Even 20 years ago in the legislature, if you brought up G.M.O. labeling or bovine growth hormone you’d get laughed out of the committee. But today, organic food is a $45 billion industry,” she says. Pingree sees the tide changing, and feels ready for the challenges that lie ahead, drawing energy from her memories of how far the fight for good food has already come. “I feel really excited that I was part of this in the days when these issues were so marginalized, and still, today, I get to continue to stand up for what I believe."

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The 2017 James Beard Foundation Leadership Award recipients will be honored at a ceremony co-hosted by Good Housekeeping on October 23. Learn more about all our 2017 Leadership Award winners.