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Tom Colicchio Wants To Transform How We Think About Food Policy

The Top Chef star dishes it out on aid to farmers, nutrition trends, and the restaurant rent crisis.

Tom Colicchio Wants To Transform How We Think About Food Policy
Tom Colicchio [Photos: courtesy of Naked Juice, SXSW] [Photos: courtesy of Naked Juice, SXSW]

Tom Colicchio is a busy man. The Top Chef personality and restaurateur whose Crafted Hospitality Group runs some of America’s best known eateries is also a cofounder and board member at Food Policy Action, an advocacy group best known for its “National Food Policy Scorecard,” which rates politicians on their commitment to keeping food safe, healthy, and affordable.

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Fast Company caught up with Colicchio shortly before he spoke on a South By Southwest (SXSW) panel on nutrition trends, sponsored by Naked Juice, that also included New York magazine’s Adam Platt, former White House policy advisor for nutrition Deb Eschmeyer, and Real Food Fake Food author Larry Olmsted.

Here are Colicchio’s thoughts on food policy, free school lunches, and New York’s looming restaurant crisis:

FC: What are the food policy issues that are close to your heart?

Right now, I think it’s about trying to find ways to make nutrition less and less expensive. The problem in this country is that nutrition is expensive, but calories are absurdly cheap. How do you get the cost down on fruit and vegetables, and all the things that you are supposed to eat that are really expensive?

Do you subsidize the food? Do you subsidize the farms? Do you favor commodity crops over fruits and vegetables? Is there more support you can give farmers and specific things you can offer?

There are smart policies that can help. A great program, for instance, is steering local farmers towards growing food that goes into local school lunches. There’s definitely a role government plays in this.

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Do you have a food policy wish list?

First, more subsidies for growing fruits and vegetables. The Obama administration changed the food pyramid to a plate, and put the idea of fruits and vegetables and grains at the heart of the plate–let’s support that with dollars. That’s the first thing.

Then I would make school lunch free across the board.

We can end hunger in this country if put the money to it as well. A more robust SNAP program [Supplemental Nutrition and Insurance Program, a federal program which offers food assistance to millions of American families] would go a long way.

Anything else that should be on our radar?

I think right now in New York, especially, restaurants are struggling. They’re especially struggling with rent. I think the trend is going to be more restaurants on the second, third, and four floor of a building because of that, and also in more mall-like settings.

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Is that just in New York, or…?

You already see it in Tokyo! I think that will change here because you can’t afford rent. The problem right now is that there’s a real brain drain of talent leaving New York. There are a lot of young people moving out of the city–young chefs and cooks don’t want to work in New York. They can’t open new restaurants and afford to pay the rent.

Meanwhile, downtown Los Angeles is booming. Young chefs are moving there, and also cooks. Why? Right now, it’s pretty crazy for everybody (In New York). You could come here to Austin, be a young cook with a great education, and not have to deal with living in New York for 10 years in order to afford the rent. We have to figure this out.

Thank you.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and readability.