A Conversation with Top Chef’s Tom Colicchio on the U.S. Food System, COVID-19 and Making Hunger Political

By Bethany Ivie

November 11, 2020

A person stands holding a cluster of tomatoes on a vine. He/She/They are clearly outdoors near a garden. They are wearing a white t-shirt and their head isn't visible.
Image by Priscilla du Preez via Unsplash.

Best known for his longstanding role as a judge on Top Chef, world-renowned chef, and owner of Crafted Hospitality, Tom Colicchio, has used his prominence in the food world to advocate for ending childhood hunger and improving nutrition in the United States. In 2014, Heifer International honored Colicchio with the Noble Globe Award at the “Beyond Hunger: A Place at the Table" event in Beverly Hills. 

This conversation with Tom Colicchio and Pierre Ferrari, Heifer International's president and CEO, is a part of a speaker series, #HeiferTogether, which focuses on the state of farmers around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. You can watch the full chat in the video above or the link here.

A veteran chef and the owner of many prominent restaurants in the United States, Tom Colicchio knows America’s food system from the inside out.  Likewise, he has seen exactly how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the food we eat and the people who make and deliver it to us. His examples are personal. “So, just on a smaller scale, when I closed the restaurants … I laid off around 470 people,” Colicchio said. “But, also, we spent millions of dollars a year in food that we purchased, and we are obviously very active in the farm-to-table movement. So, obviously, when those restaurants closed, these farmers didn’t have a market anymore.” 

Food-policy advocate and chef Tom Colicchio. Image via Crafted Hospitality.
Food-policy advocate and chef Tom Colicchio. Image via Crafted Hospitality.

Furthermore, Colicchio noted that the United States’ industrial food system isn’t set up to quickly shift gears when a disaster like the COVID-19 pandemic strikes. “So, when we saw all those stories about milk being thrown out and pigs not being slaughtered and being euthanized, it was because there was overproduction. If you were selling to a distributor that was packaging your milk into 5-gallon containers for institutional feeding, they weren’t packaging it in quarts and pints, so farmers, if they were selling into that system, they had nowhere to go.”

The answer? A decentralized food system that spreads out production among smaller, localized farmers, processors and packaging plants. "We can decentralize this, we can issue more licenses, we can spend more money into the USDA so they can get more inspectors out there and, again, spread out production," Colicchio said. " But big companies will make sure that, and they’ll spend a ton of lobbying dollars, to make sure you cannot do that.”  So, in turn, Colicchio has made it his business to challenge them.

“My wife is a filmmaker and decided to explore the issue of hunger in America,” Colicchio said. “She made a film called A Place at the Table. And it did quite well. And, additionally, because of my recognition from TV and as a chef it gave me a great soapbox to bring the issues of hunger into the forefront.” Colicchio is a vocal advocate for a food system that values access, affordability and nutrition over corporate interests. Additionally, Colicchio co-founded Food Policy Action, an organization that works to highlight the importance of food policy and to promote policies that support a more just and sustainable food system. 

Upcoming webinars include conversations with Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken, founder of Five Oaks Consulting, on November 13 at 2 p.m. EST and  Danielle Nierenberg, president and co-founder of Food Tank, on November 20 at noon EST.