Colicchio calls Hunger-Free Kids law a 'great start'
Minutes before President Obama walked on stage to sign the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act into law, a man widely known for leveling criticism about the quality of food crept into the room at the Harriet Tubman Elementary School. Some people knew he was famous but couldn't quite remember why. One woman asked for his autograph even though she didn't know his name.
Tom Colicchio, the chief head-hunter on "Top Chef," made the trip from New York to watch the president sign the bill that the chef had lobbied for. In July, Colicchio testified before a House committee on education and labor, urging legislators to pass the bill. The chef, perhaps more than most in the auditorium at Tubman Elementary today, understood what the new law would, and wouldn't, do.
"Long term, it should have some great effects," Colicchio told me after the signing, "but I think it’s just a start. This needs to be implemented as quickly as possible.”
Colicchio is not only a chef, but also a father of two and the son of a former cafeteria supervisor. For 20 years, the chef's mother, Beverly Colicchio, oversaw a school lunch program in Elizabeth, N.J.
“It dawned on me about five or six years ago when we tried to get her to retire, and she said she wanted a few more years," Colicchio said. "And I said, ‘Why? Your house is paid for.’ And her response was, ‘I know that kids are coming into my lunch room. This is the only thing they’re eating all day, and I want to make sure that they have something healthy.'”
“I was floored by that because the whole time she worked there I figured it was an outlet for her to get out of the house," the chef added. "I didn’t realize that there was that much need and that she recognized it.”
Colicchio knows the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act won't instantly improve school lunches. There is still work to be done, from finalizing the nutrition guidelines to training the next generation of cafeteria workers, whose skills have steadily declined as the school lunch program has became little more than a "heat-and-serve" operation. But the new law does include some training for cafeteria workers and supervisors and, with more funding from Congress in the future, could help transform a program that, as Colicchio noted, has historically served "terrible" food.
"If you can start training people, getting them back into schools and actually train them to cook, you’re putting people back to work as well," Colicchio said.