Colicchio is just one of many prominent food activists to hop on board this summer’s Plate the Union campaign, a consortium that includes Ricardo Salvador, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Food and Environment Program, and Will Witherspoon, former NFL linebacker and Missouri farmer. Plate of the Union is sending a food truck along the 2016 election trail as a meals-with-a-message-on-wheels embassy of sorts. First stop was the Republican National Convention last week in Cleveland, where they handed out barbecue and sought a word or two with the Donald Trump campaign (no luck).
They’ve found a slightly more sympathetic ear among Democrats, though Colicchio is quick to point out that food, if nothing else, is one arena that brings people together from across the political spectrum. And he is adamant that developing a comprehensive national food policy, the primary mission of Food Policy Action, is in the best interests of – and will require support from – politicians on both sides of the aisle.
Monday afternoon, between greeting convention goers at the food truck in 100-degree heat and dashing back to his hotel room for a quick shower before heading to the evening program at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center, Colicchio made time to answer a few questions from Modern Farmer about his vision for the future of food policy in America.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Modern Farmer: How was the scene on the streets of Philadelphia this afternoon?
Tom Colicchio: It was hot, but good. We heard there were protests, but we didn’t see any of that. We had a bunch of people come by to get some free food and drink – we were a popular spot. A few members of Congress stopped by, so it was a good day. People are doing what they should be, raising their voices, and hopefully making themselves heard.
MF: What is the set-up like with the Plate of the Union food truck?
TC: We’re on a street that’s set up like an open-air food court. It’s called Philly Feast. We were giving out food from the food truck and we also had two local chefs – Nicholas Elmi and Kevin Sbraga – who had a grill set up. They were cooking up some food, and we had a little bar set up with some wine and cocktails. So we were feeding a bunch of people and giving them, you know…
MF: A side of food for thought?
TC: Exactly, a side order of Plate of the Union.
MF: The truck will be continuing along the campaign trail over the next several months, right? Is the idea that it will source from local farms along the way?
Yes. I’m sure that Kevin and Nick, who did the food today, sourced from their normal sources here. We will be in a number of different places in the coming months: North Carolina, Iowa, back to Ohio, then to New York. We are sticking around.
MF: What is your agenda for the next few days?
TC: What we’re doing with Plate of the Union is trying to get our presidential candidates on the record focusing on food policy, the kind of smart food policy that we are looking for – that supports farmers, and starts trying to solve the issue that we have in this country where calories are cheap and nutrition is expensive. How do we craft the correct policies to make nutritious food more affordable and more accessible? I think that is a real dilemma. We certainly produce enough food in this country but it is not getting, at least nutritious food, is not getting to enough people.
[We’re] trying to get our presidential candidates on the record focusing on food policy, the kind of smart food policy that we are looking for – that supports farmers, and starts trying to solve the issue that we have in this country where calories are cheap and nutrition is expensive.
MF: You said that a couple members of Congress have come by – what has the response been like from the politicians you’ve been speaking with?
TC: We had Rosa DeLauro [D-Connecticut], Jim McGovern [D-Massachusetts], Earl Blumenauer [D-Oregon] stop by and there are several others that have been very supportive of the things we’re talking about. In Cleveland last week we had Tim Ryan [D-Ohio]. I’m sure if it wasn’t so damn hot out right now we would have had others. It’s pretty brutal out there.
MF: Have you had any success getting into Hillary Clinton’s world?
TC: We have reached out to both candidates, and we did hear back from Hillary’s campaign. They were very receptive to what we’re talking about. It’s not surprising; Hillary has always supported a lot of issues around children and nutrition and health. So we’ve had a few conversations and hopefully she will focus on some of these issues if she gets into the White House.
MF: How does the ambiance today contrast with your experience in Cleveland?
TC: You know it’s funny, with the exception of some of the costumes [in Philadelphia], it’s not that different. We’re talking food just like we did with people in Cleveland. The idea of making healthy food more accessible and more affordable is something that I think runs across party lines. If you listed what American values are, at the top of that list would be feeding your family; being able to take care of your family. Too often in this country people are left out of that equation for various reasons.
MF: And among those that can easily afford high quality organic food, it’s all too easy to forget that so many people can’t afford to make those choices at the grocery store. Does that strike you as a political problem of another sort?
TC: Right, lower income people may be feeding their family, but they certainly can’t afford food that is healthy. And I’m not talking about going shopping for organic food and buying lobster and caviar – I’m talking about a head of broccoli, peaches, basic stuff. Yet in this country that kind of food is more expensive than a fast food hamburger. The reasons for that are our subsidies that favor Big Ag and not people. So that’s something we are really focused on with Plate of the Union.
MF: What sort of feedback do you get about that from people you are talking to on the street?
TC: This idea really does resonate. We’ve seen polling data that shows people from both sides of the aisle really care about these issues. We’ve actually found that people would prefer not to hear about food in terms of policy and politics; but then when they realize that every single thing that we eat is touched by some sort of policy, they start to think: “well why are we supporting agricultural policies that make us unhealthy?”. And then, when they really start thinking about what that actually means, what it does to the population, they start making connections: We have an unhealthy population, and rising healthcare costs are a direct response to how sick people are; food-related illnesses like heart disease and high blood pressure and diabetes cost the country like $200 billion a year.
MF: I’m guessing people’s eyes start to light up when they realize how food policy is so intertwined with healthcare and the economy?
TC: Yes, once people start to understand the ramifications of what we support through our commodity [crop subsidy] programs, then they start to look at it a little differently. There is a real economic argument to make for why the population should be encouraged to eat healthier food. And when you look at recruits showing up to fight in the armed services, a large percentage have to drop out because they’re not healthy enough. So now we’re talking about national security issues. These are issues where we’re talking about the health of our country, and this is something both sides care about. So I think we need to just have a different conversation around food issues. This isn’t about big government telling you what to eat.
MF: Right, in theory, health should be a non-ideological subject.
TC: Right now we are being encouraged to eat commodity crops, because they are cheap. People respond to their pocketbook and their wallet. Especially people that are struggling; they’re going to buy the cheapest stuff they can possibly buy. It’s very easy to demonize people as if they are making bad decisions, but if they go to the supermarket and buy a gallon of a sugary beverage, it’s because it’s the cheapest thing on the shelf. With school lunch, we can fight over how much money we want to spend on it, but I don’t think anybody really believes that we should be feeding our kids junk food in school. So I think there’s a lot of room for agreement. It is just that we’re fighting Big Money, and that is always a problem.
MF: It seems like there are certainly some win-win choices that can be made regarding food policy, but it’s often so hard to get people from both sides of the political spectrum to join forces and make it happen.
TC: I think we don’t know how to reach out to various groups to form the right kind of constituencies. Sometimes you find you have a lot more in common with people if you really talk to them.
Sometimes you find you have a lot more in common with people if you really talk to them.
MF: Is your overarching goal with Food Policy Action to see a coherent national food policy come into being? Right now agricultural policy, public health, and all these other things are all in their own silos.
TC: I think it all has to come together. Agricultural policy should support public health. They should be one and the same. That is one of our goals. The other goal of Food Policy Action is to raise public awareness around food issues. Even though they are political issues, I think ultimately what we have to do is create a social movement around food.
MF: What would an effective food-oriented social movement look like?
TC: I think there are two sides of it. One is the Good Food side, where everyone really cares about the way food is produced and the effect it has on the environment, and where we debate things like labeling – not just GMOs, but words like local and natural. What do they mean and should we actually define that as opposed to letting them be used as marketing tools?
The other side is the movement to address hunger issues. How do you marry the Good Food movement with what the hunger advocates are doing? I think they should be one and the same. Because if we’re going to advocate for better food, yet we exclude a fifth of our population, then what are we fighting for? We have to marry all these things together. I think if we can create a social movement around that and turn the social movement into a political movement, then I think we can really affect change.
MF: Would you envision a federal agency that coordinates that type of policy?
TC: I think it will be difficult to pull all the food policy stuff out of the farm bill, so it’s likely to remain under the purview of the USDA. But what’s interesting about the USDA is that on the one hand their job is to promote American agriculture around the world. I get that, and they do a very good job of that. On the other hand, they are supposed to administer this huge [farm] bill. And I don’t know if you can advocate for American farm products abroad and at the same time make sure that what you’re advocating for is also creating the kind of healthy alternatives domestically that we are talking about. So I don’t know the answer to that. I think creating another agency would be difficult.
MF: What do you think about the latest GMO labeling fight?
TC: I think it’s a good proxy for all the work we’re doing with food policy generally. Am I completely thrilled with the outcome? No, I would prefer to see every package of GMO food having its own GMO label. But I think that this represents amazing progress. When you think about where this conversation was three years ago, and then when you look at Senator Mike Pompeo’s bill, which completely skirted the issue, and then to have this bill come out of the Senate – I think this really showed movement. I think that without organizations like Food Policy Action and Food Democracy Now fighting for it we would’ve gotten nowhere on this.
MF: It was certainly a rare example of bipartisan compromise.
TC: Right. I think sometimes you have to declare victory where you have a victory. I think that only going for 100 percent of what you want, if that’s all you’re after, is going to make you disappointed a lot. Especially when it comes politics. I think this shows that we do have a Congress that can compromise. Did we get everything we wanted? No, but that’s not the way life works.
MF: Food policy certainly isn’t in the top five, or even the top 10, things voters are most concerned about. Though issues like healthcare, the economy, and immigration, which are deeply intertwined with food policy, certainly are.
TC: That’s right. It starts to all come together more and more, especially with things like immigration policy. I can’t understand why farm groups aren’t coming out and supporting immigration. They can’t find enough people to work in the fields right now, yet they are remaining silent. I don’t quite understand that. I think I know why, but sometimes you wish people would take a longer view of things.
MF: You mentioned continuing to build a social movement around food issues. Beyond that, how do you envision the roadmap to getting food issues higher on the national political agenda?
TC: We are taking a long approach here. This is something we know isn’t going to happen overnight. This is a 20- or 30-year fight. More and more people, especially young people, are focusing on food. Young people care about who is producing their food, how it’s being produced, and the effects it has on the environment. So I have a sense that eventually it will change and people will really start to realize how important this is, how many different areas it touches. I also hope that because of the Affordable Care Act that there will be more of a focus on prevention, and that is going to lead us right to food.
MF: One last question: What was on the menu today at the food truck?
TC: [Laughs] We had some grilled pork belly, some lettuce wraps, a grilled shrimp sandwich, things like hummus, a bunch of stuff. It was really good.