Hunger in America can often seem invisible, but recent studies have shown that it is a problem that affects millions of people, many of them children.
An estimated 13.1 million kids live in homes with insufficient food, according to the most recent figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And the number of college students struggling with hunger has prompted more campuses to open food pantries. Seniors and people with disabilities also suffer from hunger, and federal money for programs like Meals on Wheels may face cuts under President Trump's proposed budget.
Rachel Martin of NPR's Morning Edition talks to celebrity chef and hunger advocate Tom Colicchio about some of these issues.
You say farmers are looking to expand their markets. They want entryways into organic products, and to get into a school lunch program. Why is that so hard?
Because there are entrenched issues making sure that doesn't happen. In schools, we've had a trend over the past 30 years to move away from scratch cooking to mass-produced food that's thrown into a steamer. We need to talk about more scratch cooking. I actually met with Sen. [Michael] Bennet in Colorado, where all of the schools have moved over to scratch cooking. So of course, they're using more local produce and vegetables. It's a real boon to the local farmers. That's a movement we want to continue to support. The school lunch program — the "Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act" — was supposed to be voted on last year and it didn't happen, so it should eventually come around soon.
You have focused your policy work and advocacy on hunger. What's the biggest lever for change on that issue in the U.S. right now?
The biggest lever for change is actually making foods more nutritious. We produce a lot of calories in this country — calories are cheap but nutrition is expensive. [We need] to try to figure out ways to make nutrition more affordable and accessible, especially for people who are struggling to feed themselves. The average people who are receiving food stamps are children, people with disabilities and seniors. After that, the majority of people who receive benefits are working. They're just struggling; they're not making enough money. We have to look at the benefit of making sure that people are well-nourished — especially when we talk about children. If we want children to live up to their potential, be part of the economy and continue to add to the fabric of society, then they have to have early nutrition. They have to understand what nutrition is about and where their food is from. And they need to grow up nourished. If we are excluding 13 million children, what does that portend for the country 20 years from now?
During the election, people said they were disappointed that they didn't hear more talk about food. I said, "I heard food talked about every single day." I heard health care talked about. Currently, we spend about $200 billion a year on health care issues that are food related, like diabetes and heart disease. Think about national security. Currently, 25 percent of the kids who join our military wash out because they're not fit to fight. Think about the environment. The way we produce food in this country is a big drag on it. If we can change some farming practices, we can create healthier soil. So, I heard food talked about a lot. You just have to tune your ear to it. People don't understand that everything that they're eating has policy attached to it. Therefore, there are politics attached to it.
Have you always thought of food from a policy perspective?
As a chef working in New York City, chefs are kind of first-responders when it comes to raising money for various causes. A lot of chefs rally around hunger issues, so for years I've done fundraising for Share Our Strength and Meals on Wheels. I thought I kind of understood the issue. Then about six or seven years ago, my wife was mentoring a young girl who had some learning disabilities. We managed to get her into a private school program. In New York City, if the school can't meet the kids' needs, you can get them into a private school. We got a phone call about a week into the school year that this young woman was clearly hungry and asking for food. The school didn't have a lunch or breakfast program, and she wasn't eating.
My wife is a filmmaker and writer and she said she wanted to explore this issue. And very quickly, when she started doing the research, we found that people are hungry in this country not because there's not enough food here. It's not because of drought, and it's not because of famine or war. It's because we don't have the political will to make sure that every single person is fed. We can end hunger in this country. There are a lot of intractable problems and issues that we can't fix, but we can end hunger. When you fix that problem, you've fixed a lot of other problems in the country.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
If you know Tom Colicchio, you probably know him as "Top Chef" judge, author and restaurant owner. He is also a food activist. Colicchio has just been to Capitol Hill urging Congress to support nutrition programs, especially healthier lunches for kids. Colicchio wants school cafeterias to prepare more fresh food, what he calls scratch cooking, rather than serve mass-prepared meals.
TOM COLICCHIO: We had a trend over the last 30 years to move away from scratch cooking in schools to where it's just mass-produced food that's thrown into a steamer. And so we need to move to more scratch cooking. I actually met with Senator Bennet in Colorado, where all the schools in Colorado have moved over to scratch cooking. So of course they're using more local produce and vegetables, and so it's a real boost to the local farmers.
MARTIN: You have focused a lot in your policy work and advocacy on hunger. What's the biggest lever for change on that issue in the country right now?
COLICCHIO: Yeah, I think the biggest lever for change is actually making foods more nutritious - we produce a lot of calories in this country. And calories are cheap, and nutrition is expensive - and so try to figure out ways to make nutrition more affordable and more accessible. And if we want children to live up to their potential and to really, you know, produce and give back and be part of the economy, they have to have early nutrition. They have to understand what nutrition is about, where their food's from. But they need to grow up nourished. And if we are excluding 30 million children, what does that portend for our country 20 years from now?
MARTIN: Has this always been an issue for you? I mean, have you always thought of food from a policy perspective?
COLICCHIO: Well, no. You know - so it's interesting because as a chef working in New York City - you know, chefs are kind of first responders when it comes to raising money for various causes. And I think a lot of chefs kind of rallied around hunger issues. And so for years, I've done, you know, fundraising and thought I kind of understood the issue. And then about six, seven years ago, my wife was mentoring a young girl. She had some learning disabilities, and we managed to get her into a private school program in New York City. And so we got a phone call that this young woman was clearly hungry and asking for food.
The school didn't have a lunch program or a breakfast program, and she wasn't eating. And my wife's a filmmaker and a writer, and she came home and said, I want to explore this issue. And very, very quickly, we found that, you know, people are are hungry in this country not because there's not enough food here. It's not because of drought. It's not because of famine or war. It's because we don't have the political will to make sure that every single person is fed.
We can end hunger in this country. And you think about this - there's a lot of things - intractable, you know, problems and issues that we can't fix, but we can end hunger. And you fix that problem, you fix a lot of other problems in the country.
MARTIN: Chef, restaurateur, TV host - Tom Colicchio, thank you so much for your time this morning.
COLICCHIO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.