Thomas Harttung, the Danish founder of one of the world’s largest organic box schemes, recently wrote about the importance of chefs in helping to improve our food systems. He points out that they hold a unique position:

“Cooking is the creative process that connects the work of the farmer/gardener/herdsman/fisherman/hunter/forager with the work in all kitchens: transforming the bounties of the land and sea into feasts of honest, nutritious, seasonal, inspired food.”

So how can chefs use this opportunity along with their respected status in society to create meaningful change? In the United States, the James Beard Foundation has created the Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change, which invites chefs to step out of the kitchen and into the classroom to learn how to become more effective leaders of healthier food systems.

During the retreat, chefs learn about the issues, challenges and opportunities facing the food world and are taught policy advocacy skills from experts at the Chefs Action Network, giving them the tools needed to create change. As Michel Nischan, co-founder of the Chef Action Network explains: “Food as a single subject has more impact on human health, environmental health, societal health than any other.”

Each boot camp is based around a specific theme. In 2012, the programme focused on antibiotic overuse in livestock, which gave chefs an understanding of the complexities of policy formation and implementation along with the opportunity to develop their advocacy voices.

The gatherings incorporate work and play to encourage bonding between chefs so they can support each other when they leave, creating a network of like-minded people. Participants can also expect:

  • A geographically, culturally and demographically diverse group of 15 chefs.
  • A unique destination to facilitate group cohesion.
  • Policy and media training by industry and political experts on specific food-system topics.
  • Hands-on activities that engage chefs with local natural resources, such as harvesting and visits to local farms, slaughterhouses, fisheries and other producers.
  • A collaborative dinner prepared by the participating chefs.
  • Educational sessions about pressing food system topics, such as the US Farm Bill or sustainable fisheries.
  • Exposure to campaigns of partner organisations, such as the Pew Charitable Trusts’ campaign against antibiotic overuse in livestock.
  • Strategic brainstorming about effective action points and next steps.

As each retreat is framed around a specific theme, potential participants are asked to complete the following survey so that the Foundation can select a group of chefs best suited to a particular topic and location. Applications are being accepted on a rolling basis.

Photograph: Chris Ford

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