Is presidential candidate Michele Bachmann's (R-MN) attack on the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) settlement with African American farmers racist? Bachmann is coming under increasing fire for characterizing a settlement to black farmers who were discriminated against as mass “fraud.” For years, black farmers alleged that they were being denied USDA farm loans or that they were forced to wait longer for loan approval than other non-minority farmers. Some contended that they endured foreclosure and financial ruin as a direct result. Following a class action lawsuit that was initiated back in 1997 – the so-called Pigford Cases – a U.S. Court has established that between 1983 and 1997 the USDA discriminated against black farmers who applied for farm loans and other assistance on the basis of their race, and that the USDA also failed subsequently to investigate or properly respond to complaints. Following this unequivocal ruling you would think that all efforts would now turn to addressing this injustice as swiftly as possible for the thousands of individuals and families who were wronged.
The Child Nutrition Act is only reauthorized every five years, so now is the time to act. Please join with the chefs and contact your senator to ask for an additional $4 billion per year to improve school nutrition programs. Senators need to hear from you now. To find out how to contact your senator, please visit the U.S. Senate’s directory.
All the heat wasn’t in the kitchen on March 17, when a group of chefs, led by AWA supporter Chef Bill Telepan, wore their traditional white jackets to Capitol Hill to push for increased funding for school lunches. Chef’s Day of Action, coordinated by the NYC Alliance for CNR (Child Nutrition Reauthorization), brought together celebrity chefs and school lunch reform advocates to urge Congress to provide an additional $4 billion in funding per year for school food programs.
The Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act comes up every five years and this year President Obama has asked for an additional $1 billion per year. The Senate, however, is considering only authorizing $500 million per year—half of what the President has requested. Even $1 billion wouldn’t make much of a difference to the 30 million school children who depend on the National School Lunch Program for meals. And when you consider the size of the budget—$3.7 trillion—it’s pocket change. $1 billion only equals 17 ½ cents per day per child. The government reimburses schools $2.68 for fully subsidized lunches.
The chefs say much more is needed to really make a difference. An increase in funding to $4 billion will provide an additional $0.70 per child. “We need school lunches to be about the best food, not the cheapest food,” says Chef Bill Telepan, who is also a board member of NYC’s Wellness in the Schools. “This is what we practice as chefs and we have a responsibility to bring the best food there is into schools.”
All the chefs work regularly to improve nutrition for children. Chef Ken Oringer, who owns six restaurants in the Boston area, has worked with Share Our Strength’s Operation Frontline Massachusetts to teach kids about cooking and nutrition. The birth of his daughter, Verveine, strengthened his commitment to ensuring every child’s meal is made with safe, fresh and nutritious food. “When I started cooking for my daughter it really hit home what an awesome responsibility feeding a child is. And that’s when I realized some kids will never get to eat a fresh organic vegetable or pasture-raised egg. It’s our responsibility to help all children learn about food and nutrition and eat the best possible food.”
Former Top Chef contestant Chef Spike Mendelsohn of D.C.’s Good Stuff Eatery came along to support his fellow chefs. As a D.C. resident he has no voting members of Congress, but he also owns a home in Florida and will be contacting Florida’s senators and his local Florida congressperson to urge them to support increased funding. Chef Spike works with a D.C. KIPP Academy and with Horton’s Kids, an afterschool program that works one-on-one with children from D.C.’s Ward 8 neighborhood. Chef Spike teaches the kids about cooking and nutrition and a trip to Good Stuff Eatery is a popular reward for doing well in school. “School is about learning,” Chef Spike says. “We need to provide the money to schools not just to serve the best food, but to teach kids about great food—what it is, where it comes from, how you prepare it.”
Chef M. Mitchell of Brain Food, an innovative school lunch program providing meals for schools, moved his operation from wealthy northwest D.C. to the more challenging environment of nearby Prince George’s County, MD. “I wanted to work where good food wasn’t really accessible. People feel that it doesn’t matter what the kids are eating as long as they are eating, so kids eat junk. Adults make decisions for kids and right now they’ve decided that what kids eat at school doesn’t matter. If we aren’t making the right food decisions for our kids, how can we expect them to do it for themselves?”
D.C. Chef Jose Andres’ restaurant Oyamel served as the D.C. headquarters for the chefs and advocates. While Chef Jose was unable to be present, he wanted to provide his support to his colleagues. Between Senate visits, Chef Spike hosted the group at Good Stuff Eatery, just blocks from the Capitol building.
By the end of the day, chefs in their signature white jackets had visited senators and congresspersons from around the nation, including the offices of Senators Kerry, Schumer and Gillibrand. There is still a long fight ahead, but the chefs all agreed—the Hill hasn’t seen the last of them.