Rock Harper: The James Beard Boot Camp for Policy & Change

Rock Harper

Earlier this month, The James Beard Foundation hosted the first Chefs Boot Camp for Policy & Change at the Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tennessee. From the press release:

The pilot program has been designed to provide chefs with the tools and support they require to lead and advocate for food-system change. Chefs Boot Camp for Policy & Change is envisioned as a model for future gatherings, designed to grow a cohort of effective chef advocates who are dedicated to improving the safety, healthfulness, wholesomeness, sustainability, and equity of America’s food system. The two-day boot camp was made possible with financial and programming support from the Pew Charitable Trusts…. The inaugural Boot Camp was conducted under the direction of James Beard Foundation trustees Michel Nischan, chef of the Dressing Room and co-founder of Wholesome Wave, and Eric Kessler, founder of Arabella Advisors.

Super Chef spoke with Chef Rock Harper, who was one of the participants to find out more about the program. Chef Harper is no stranger to media and advocacy. He won season three of Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen. He published 44 Things Parents Should Know about Healthy Cooking for Kids in 2010. He has been the National Celebrity Chef for the March of Dimes since 2008.

Super Chef: You’ve already done Food TV, and you are the National Celebrity Chef for March of Dimes, I would think you are pretty savvy already. Why were you interested in participating in the Boot Camp?

Rock Harper: I think I am fairly savvy, but you can always get better. This wasn’t necessary geared towards media training. That was only one element. It was geared toward how to be a change maker, influence lawmakers, where change happen. The James Beard Foundation and Pew didn’t tell us what we had to shout about. They were showing us how you go about getting change.

Super Chef: You are the chef of DC Central Kitchen. You are based in DC where the First Lady’s organization, Let’s Move, is also based. Does that give you some special in to the White House?

Rock Harper: It is great that we are in the same city. I registered with Let’s Move, but I haven’t been to the White House yet.

Let’s Move brought the conversation to the front page. It’s a national security issue. Obesity is now the main focus.

Super Chef: What was the policy and media training? What did it involve?

Rock Harper: Michel Nischan talked about Wholesome Wave. It is all about making sure everyone has access to healthy, safe food. We discussed the farm bill and we ally signed a chefs’ letter to keep food safe and antibiotic out.

Media training is important. There are rules in every city – the how’s and what’s to say – you only have seconds. What works and what doesn’t work, when you call a lawmaker. You have to know how to get attention, and how to do it. That was the most important thing.
With the farm bill, we discussed who is on it, what is important. You might call your local congressman, but he might not be a sponsor. You have to learn who is important to reach out to.

Super Chef: What did you find most useful?

Rock Harper: The information on antibiotics was eye-opening, it was all about these super bugs, 70% of antibiotics are used in our food supply, not for human disease.. They will soon stop working. We are moving towards – you cut your finger and you’ll die! I don’t think people understand this. Antibiotics only exist in food because of the unsanitary condition in farms or factories. If we clean them up, we could use them only for people.

Super Chef: Most chefs have their plates full with low margins, vagaries of the market – do you think it is fair to burden them with this kind of advocacy?

Rock Harper: Business wise, it is tough, but nothing that means monumental change is easy.

But it isn’t only chefs that can make change. McDonald’s buys more meat – it can force change faster then chefs. If you ask a chef to go in all the way, it can put you out of business. Sometimes you have to buy that chicken [non organic or free-range] or that potato. You have to stay in business…I am torn.

Super Chef: Do you see JBF as a leader in this field?

Rock Harper: Yes, it is definitely leading. The James Beard Foundation has struggled to figure out where they fit in. But if you read James Beard on food, chefs want to share that philosophy. It is at the center of the discussion.

Super Chef: Is there room in Food TV for a advocate of change beyond Jamie Oliver and the occasional mention of healthy alternatives?

Rock Harper: There is more room. Food Network is on 24 hours a day. Producers can make garbage look good. But shows can be responsible, they can cook healthy, sustainable food.

Super Chef: What are you going to do now?

Rock Harper: I am running DC Central Kitchen. I am getting produce and storing it, jamming it, and saving it for winter. I am working on my second book. And I am advocating safe and healthy food.

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