The mission statement on the Food Policy Action front web page ends with “A tomato should not cost more than a package of cookies.” After six years working in Washington D.C., the food advocacy group has extended their footprint to Minnesota.
Food Policy Action (FPA) is a food advocacy group that analyzes food policy and lobbies for legislation that promotes access to healthier and more affordable food. FPA Executive Director Monica Mills points to Minnesota’s robust agricultural community, and the potential impact of some of its upcoming elections, as factors in the FPA’s choice to make Minnesota its first landing point outside Washington. The FPA officially touched down with a fund-raising event June 25 at Minneapolis’ Bachelor Farmer.
Mills, a South Dakota, has been working in Washington since 1983 when she began working for South Dakota politician Tom Daschle. It was Mills’ work with the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 (also known as the Farm Bill) compelled her to eventually change course and take up the FPA’s cause.
“When I talk about doing work on social justice issues, that’s part of it.,” she says. “How do I help those that don’t have enough to put food on their plate?”
The group is working alongside chefs nationally and locally in the cause. The FPA records a podcast with celebrity chef Spike Mendelsohn, and has gotten help in Washington from Andrew Zimmern and Louisville-based chef Edward Lee. Zimmern also praised the passionate approach Minnesotans already take to food and agricultural issues.
“We don’t need to connect to the family farm,” he said. “We’re not disconnected from the family farm.”
Lee had always believed restaurants should steer clear of politics – “a beautiful, clear bubble” he called it – but said his path to the FPA began with an epiphany he had in his mid-20s. He wanted to do things differently, he says. He wanted to know where his food really came from – “which is a very innocent statement to say,” he added, “but it’s actually a lot harder to do.”
He remembers calling each one of his purveyors at his restaurant at the time, and asking them where the beef and vegetables came from.
“I wanted to actually trace where that cow lives, what that cow ate; or what body of water that fish came from and how it was fished; or where my broccoli come from?” he says. “Is there a place on this map that I could go visit? We’re talking 25 years ago. It was very difficult then.”
Lee is originally from Brooklyn, but now oversees four restaurants in Louisville, Ky. He has been featured on The Mind of a Chef and has been a contestant on Top Chef; and his second book, Buttermilk Graffiti, was released earlier this year. But he calls his work with FPA his “final evolution” as a chef.
“Anything I did when I was young was all that ‘me me me,’” Lee says. “Now I’m at an age and thankfully a place in my career where I can start thinking about other people and other things, and the welfare of this whole industry. I want to leave this industry in a better place and I found it. I don’t know what that means exactly, but that’s my ultimate goal.”
Zimmern says chefs are in a unique place on this issue, as they touch a lot of different sides of this issue. Working with people who’ve already been up and down those halls in Washington enables chefs to do the same – and use the tools at their disposal to do so effectively.
Specifically, Zimmern says, chefs can let their experiences guide conversations.
“[Politicians] really do listen to stories up there,” he says. “It’s quite amazing. I’ve been up there arguing facts and stuff like that, and you’re just arguing; but when you share your personal experience and stories, you actually get the attention of the people you’re trying to talk to.”
One example Zimmern brought up was a visit to Senator Bob Corker’s office five years ago while he was working in support of the Electrify Africa Act. Zimmern called the experience “trial by fire,” but the trial paid off: while the bill didn’t pass that year, Corker (R-TN) and Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) were among the co-sponsors of the act when it passed in 2016. A majority of Electrify Africa’s original proposal was passed with it.
“Having [chefs] at our backs is really important,” says Mills, “not just in Washington but at the state level, too.”
FPA keeps scorecards on their website for every politician in office, grading them based on how they voted on food-related legislation. Each individual scorecard lists the votes affecting their score, with links to details on each bill and vote. To see grades for Minnesota’s legislators, click Minnesota on the map.
Lee says it’s still possible to remain bipartisan while seeking changes on the food policy front. It’s about moving the needle a little at a time, he adds, not trying to solve every problem in one fell swoop. Zimmern echoed a similar sentiment.
“There’s a piece of me that has a friendly amendment that nobody wants to see a hungry child,” says Zimmern. “We can’t think our way into right-acting, but we can act our way into right-thinking.”