“There are 30 million children in our country that get school lunch. Twenty-one million of them are on subsidized lunches, and for a lot of those kids, this is the one full meal they get per day because of their socioeconomic status,” says chef William Dissen of the Market Place, citing facts gathered by the Food Research and Action Center. “To put that in even more perspective, we budget $1 per child for school lunch.”
Dissen and dozens of other chefs descended on Capitol Hill earlier this week to persuade members of Congress not to reduce that dollar to a pile of nickels and dimes.
Later this year, legislators will vote on the Child Nutrition Reauthorization, which affects funding and guidelines for the National School Lunch Program, among other youth food programs.
“Every few years, this legislation goes back to Congress for them to re-evaluate,” Dissen explains, “and a lot of times it’s based on budget and other issues. There’s some pull by certain people to try to diminish the budget for school lunches.
“Some of the congressmen and women also say they think this is a state issue and not a federal issue,” he continues. “They make a valid point, but at the same time, we’re saying: ‘That’s a good option, but let’s keep a federal standard that we can’t go below.’”
Organized through the Chef Action Network and Food Policy Action, the recent Chef’s Day of Action in Washington saw 40 chefs conducting more than 120 one-on-one meetings with different Congress members over the course of a day.
“We hit it hard,” Dissen says, noting that CAN and FPA plus FPA co-founder, chef Tom Colicchio, hosted an advocacy training and networking dinner the night before unleashing the chefs on Capitol Hill. “It was an opportunity to speak with a lot of influential people, both in media and politics, about the importance of advocacy for food,” Dissen says.
For his part, the Asheville chef and activist spoke with North Carolina Reps. Virginia Fox, David Rouser, Robert Pittinger, Alma Adams and G.K. Butterfield; Sens. Thom Tillis (N.C.), Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.) and Richard Durbin (Ill.); and Rep. Glenn Thompson (Pa.).
Although the farm-to-table chef says current school lunch standards still need considerable work — “This Childhood Nutrition Act is saying that pizza is considered a vegetable,” he says. “How bad is that?” — his proposal to legislators was modest: Preserve the status quo.
The current legislation, he says, “keeps a bare minimum. It makes sure that we have fruit and vegetables available for the children, but even those standards are pretty low. Really, we’re saying, we don’t want the standards to go even lower, because there are some congressmen and women that are trying to get this funding for other projects that they have.”
Dissen’s motivations to effect change are fairly straightforward: “I have a 16-month-old daughter and another one on the way,” he says. “We’re not cooking gourmet meals from scratch [for her], but we’re cooking with whole foods at home. Unfortunately, not every child’s father can be a chef and restaurant owner. But I think if we can teach children at a young age how to eat healthy in the homeplace and at school, we can teach them traits for life… and hopefully, it’s going to give them a better opportunity to be a step ahead.
“I’m not the kind of person that wants to get up on my stump and preach to people,” Dissen continues, but “everytime I get the chance to go to D.C. and speak with our congressmen and women, it’s a great opportunity to [share] our voice from the people here in Asheville and let our legislators know what we believe in.”