Women in Food: James Beard Foundation’s Katherine Miller Aligns Chefs to Fight for Food Equity
May 31, 2016 | AJ Hughes
When one thinks of the James Beard Awards that are yearly dispensed to the most distinguished and culinarily imaginative chefs and restaurants in the United States, food access and equity is not the first thing that comes to mind. But Katherine Miller, director of food policy advocacy for the James Beard Foundation, is working hard to alter this perception by aligning award winning chefs, many of whom wield significant power in the food policy arena, to make the high quality, local and healthy food more accessible to all.
“From a policy standpoint chefs and restaurant owners are major employers, so they have clout with congress and state legislators,” she says. “They’re a relevant force on the policy front—I want to see more chefs get involved.”
Prior to joining the James Beard Foundation, Miller founded Table 81, a communications firm that works with nonprofits and socially-conscious organizations to positively impact policy. She’s also a founder of the Chef Action Network, a group that helps top-tier chefs advocate for greater food equity.
“I’ve had a long career in progressive politics, foundations and communications,” Miller says. “I started training and activating chefs to be more vocal on public policy, and the James Beard Foundation approached me about building a more robust impact program for their organization.”
But while chefs are often among the most visible players in the food and agriculture industry, Miller also stresses the importance of including the voices of farmers and others along the supply chain.
“Farmers’ voices are not always as included in the food system—I’m excited about relationships between chefs and farmers,” she says. “All the various components of the food system—waste management, chefs, consumers, farmers, institutions, processors—need to see themselves as more interrelated.”
Miller hopes this broader conversation helps make a more equitable food system by bringing attention to the true cost of food, whether it’s expensive or cheap. In her view, one easy and simple way to increase good food access is by reducing food waste. And an easy and simple way to reduce food waste is to accept, and even embrace, food’s cosmetic imperfections.
“How are we selling seconds?” she asks. “A tomato is a tomato is a tomato, especially when you put it in spaghetti sauce.”
In Miller’s mind, reducing food waste by accepting “imperfect” produce is one of many ways to make good food access more equitable. Another strategy is reducing portion sizes. She feels that chefs are integral to this conversation because they have power to use all types of produce and dictate just how much food is part of a serving. If chefs are able to influence lawmakers, this opens up the door to a slew of policy changes.
“We can look at laws to try to make better food less expensive—an example is how far meat sometimes has to travel because of USDA regulations,” she says. “We need to look at the true cost of food to make good food more affordable for all. There should be a food system for everyone, with good options for everyone.”
“Everyone,” of course, includes women. Miller values women’s voices, and would like to see women fill more food and agriculture leadership positions.
“Women make a lot of purchasing decisions at home—packing lunch, making dinner,” she says. “We want to be relevant and reliable to people we’re trying to reach.”
Both personally and professionally, Miller has surrounded herself with female mentors and cohorts. Foremost among them is her mother.
“My mother is on speed dial for all of my professional decisions,” she says.
“I’ve turned to chef Nischan for policy advice, and chef Andrea has been a tireless advocate for those not at the table,” says Miller. “They have both taught me so much about the food system.”
Looking ahead, Miller’s main professional goal is training more chefs to become powerful advocates for change. And one of her main personal goals? Perfecting her own sourdough bread and French macaroons.
In the meantime, she’s excited to be working with the James Beard Foundation.
“This is an exciting time for the food movement,” she says. “The James Beard Foundation is recognized as a leader in the new good food movement.”