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Chefs in the Fight for Good Food

Maggie Borden

May 05, 2016

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Photo: Robert X. Fogarty

Katherine Miller describes her entrance into food policy as a “delicious accident.” After nearly two decades as a communications executive and campaign strategist working with leading organizations including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the Knight Foundation, and the Aspen Institute, a chance phone call from JBF trustee Eric Kessler sent her down the path to her latest project: turning chefs into advocates. 

As founding executive director of the Chef Action Network, now an official initiative of the JBF Impact Programs, Miller has developed training and guidance for toques looking to become more engaged with issues they’re passionate about, and in her new role as JBF’s senior director of food policy advocacy, she’ll broaden that reach to expand and enhance the Foundation’s work to establish a more sustainable food system. We chatted with Miller about her life in politics, her hopes to broaden the food movement’s base, and why she thinks chefs are born to be advocates.

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JBF: Before you started working with chefs, you were heavily involved in political campaigns and public health policy. How did those experiences prepare you for the work you do today?

Katherine Miller: I think the most exciting thing about political issue and campaign advocacy is finding committed champions in communities to help you spread your message. In political campaigns, you often have to build that constituency. You have to spend lots of human hours organizing communities and identifying leaders on the ground. With chefs and the Beard Foundation working with food policy, you already have them. You have chefs, farmers, and policy advocates, all of whom are hugely committed to changing our food system and ways to make it more affordable, accessible, and sustainable. 

I think the food community was sitting on this amazing resource of chefs and culinary professionals who were just itching to get involved in causes, but didn’t quite know how to do it. People had always turned to chefs to fundraise or to do promotional activities, but wouldn’t call on them for their other expertise, for chefs’ other roles as business owners, market drivers, and community builders. These are invaluable voices to reach policy and decision makers. Chefs are natural-born storytellers, and so being able to take that ability, give them the skills, and direct them towards the issues is great.

JBF: Food policy issues can sometimes be wonky and dry. Why do you think chefs are such good advocates for these causes?

KM: Chefs are great at making it simple. They are natural-born storytellers. Think about having to take a really complex recipe and break it down in order to explain it to somebody—to their new sous chef, or their line cook, or even for customers.

If we look at politics, it’s usually one side versus the other, but chefs are able to work across the aisle, and are able to have reasonable discourse with all sides because the common interest is food and making sure that people are fed in the fairest, most just, most sustainable ways—that are still delicious.

JBF: How did you move from working on campaigns related to public health and juvenile justice to working with chefs and working in food politics?

KM: It was a delicious accident. The James Beard Foundation, through trustee Eric Kessler, approached me to design the advocacy curriculum for the very first Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change, and that was my introduction to this world and these folks as champions and messengers. Beard Foundation trustee Eric Kessler, whom I had worked with in the past, asked me to do the very first Boot Camp.

I have experience in the advocacy community and doing trainings all over the world with different constituencies. I’m a committed and a conscious eater; my husband and I are home cooks and my family owned a restaurant for 20 years, so I sort of understand this world. But I had honestly never thought about something as obvious as chefs as advocates. 

Even at that first training the chefs quickly understood what we were trying to do, got excited about the concept and even started to immediately use their networks and voices in support of efforts to limit antibiotic usage in meat and poultry production.

JBF: How did the Chef Action Network come about? 

KM: The moment that the penny dropped was when chef Andrea Reusing and chef Maria Hines both asked, “Well, now what? We’ve gotten this great training, but now what do we do?” We hadn’t really thought about the next steps yet, since we wanted to allow the program to develop organically and to see what the chefs would come up with. That led Eric and Chef Michel Nischan to create the Chef Action Network and they asked me to be the executive director.  We needed a place for the advocacy work to sit. It gave us a place for the experimentation to begin. 

In just over three years, we’ve trained hundreds of advocates and seen chefs make a real difference in policy fights around child nutrition, local fisheries, global food security, and so much more.

JBF: What’s one specific food policy topic that keeps you up at night?

KM: The disconnect between the various parts of the food advocacy movement keeps me up at night. We’re not necessarily thinking holistically about the system.

One thing that’s great about chefs is they actually interact at every point in the food system. They deal with procurement and sourcing and, therefore, where things are grown and how they’re grown. They deal with how they’re processed and brought to the customer. They deal how they’re marketed and then finally presented on a plate. They also deal with marketing of their own brands. They have to deal with the sustainability factor, whether from an ecological standpoint, or sustainability from a business perspective. And they’re even looking at the end point: where’s it all going? In the trash? Or compost? 

So that’s another reason that I think chefs are so great for this, because they can speak to all of those different levels, and they can hopefully bring different people—including farmers, policy makers, nutrition advocates—to the table. So that’s the thing that keeps me up at night: how to do that, but in a respectful way. 

JBF: Both Sam Kass and Marion Nestle have pointed to the lack of collaboration between environmental and food policy advocates. Do you agree? How can we broaden the stakeholders in the food advocacy movement to include other special interest groups?

KM:  There’s definitely a lack of collaboration but that is changing. Let’s look at child nutrition: it’s both easy and complicated to take on. No one wants a kid to not have school lunch, and no one wants a kid to eat French fries for school lunch exclusively. But I think a lot of the environmental community didn’t see that as their fight. That’s not in their mission, but if you think about some of the programs that are funded in that law, like National Farm to School, they’re very specifically agriculture programs.

But I don’t think it is just environmentalists. The number one thing that we hear people want to do is strengthen the relationship between chefs and farmers, and not just in terms of sourcing but for overall sustainability . We always joke that their sleep cycles are totally off—just as the chefs are going to bed, the farmers are getting up. How do you even get them together? 

So the question is, how do we make that table bigger and understand that this week we might all be advocating for climate change and its impact on our food system, but next week we’re going need the same coalition to and take on the House budget which is going to cut SNAP by 30 percent?

I hope we can help bring this huge good food community together and find ways to support each other. Ultimately, we are fighting for the same thing. We all see it as “here’s the problem I’m trying to solve and I need to get this thing done.” And there’s nothing wrong with that—it’s pretty typical. The newest and most successful movements are those that can bring a lot of disparate voices to the table. Our hope is that food can become our common ground and our table can include everyone necessary to make the changes we seek.

JBF: Do you feel like there is a hurdle in getting people to treat chefs as valid advocates? Is that the dark side of the celebrity chef culture?

KM: It’s the total dark side of the celebrity chef culture. People view the chefs as pretty people with sharp knives who make delicious food and party. I think that over the last couple of years we’ve helped to change some of that. My phone certainly rings more frequently from advocacy groups who want chefs to speak at their rally or participate in their event or testify in front of Congress.

I think that’s in part because they’ve seen chefs like Tom Colicchio, José Andrés, and Michel Nischan, and chefs like Maria and Andrea who have been through the JBF Boot Camp program, who are informed, committed, serious, and willing to take the time to do this and to do it right. But we also have data from the Edelman Trust Survey a few years ago that identified chefs as some of the most trusted messengers when it comes to food. Think about the inherent trust that we place in a chef every time we step into a restaurant, that his or her food is not going to kill us!

JBF: Can you give some examples of chefs who have used the training to really carve out space for the issues they’re passionate about?

KM: Andrea Reusing is doing incredible work on making the people who harvest and make our food visible, which means taking on significant things like immigration reform. Look at somebody like Jonathon Sawyer who has turned the issue of sustainable seafood into real passion and is tackling it in multiple ways: he’s gotten more involved with Monterey Bay Aquarium, he’s taken tuna off his menus. Patrick Mulvaney is really starting to try and bring people together in his local community and take on this issue of how Northern California is one of the most rich agricultural environments in the country and yet it sometimes can’t feed its own local citizens. Emily Luchetti is taking on sugar and dessert as a pastry chef. Folks like Mary Sue Milliken and Ashley Christensen have deepened their involvement in things like Share Our Strength. Ashley helped them raise more than $250,000 since last year, her most successful event, by calling on her customers and community. It’s everybody. Every chef who has come through our training is now working on something exciting.

JBF: How do the CAN and JBF programs fit into the larger fight to improve our food system?

KM: First, I’m thrilled that an organization with the depth of expertise and the brand recognition of the Beard Foundation is now willing to delve into policy. I don’t think that people should underestimate its power to draw attention to important issues. For the Chef Action Network, we’re a coalition of the 200 chefs who have gone through both Boot Camp and our national salon series, and we now have the ability to reach thousands in the culinary community, so I think that what we’re doing can hopefully only get bigger and better.

Learn more about the JBF Impact Programs and see our upcoming events.

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Maggie Borden is associate editor at JBF. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.