Top Chef‘s Chef Tom Colicchio on Hunger in America and the Documentary A Place at the Table

In a new documentary, the 'Top Chef' judge want to raise awareness about a serious (and fixable) national crisis

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Magnolia Pictures

Tom Colicchio in 'A Place at the Table'

Tom Colicchio is perhaps best known for being a judge on Top Chef—he’s been a judge on every season—and his high-profile restaurants, but he’s long been interested in the other side of the food equation: the problem of scarcity. As a restauranteur, he’s lent his support to food charities like the Food Bank for New York City, but he says that he’s come to realize that real help must mean more than just providing food for those who are hungry. Instead, he thinks, Americans need to understand how many people don’t have enough to eat and, more important, pressure the government to address the problem. It’s a point he makes in the documentary A Place at the Table (Mar. 1), of which his wife, Lori Silverbush, is a director and producer. Colicchio spoke to TIME about what a documentary can do to make real change.

TIME: Is hunger an issue you’ve been aware of for a long time?
Tom Colicchio: About six years ago, my wife was mentoring a young girl, and we had noticed that she was often hungry and her family was hungry. I remember Lori coming home and saying, I think I want to make a film about hunger. That’s how it came about. Very early on, [Silverbush and co-director Kristi Jacobson] learned that there was a CBS doc [1968’s Hunger in America] that looked at this issue—and very, very quickly after that, the population demanded that our leaders fix it. It worked. So that gave them the confidence to do it again. I don’t think either one of them just wanted to make a film; they wanted to affect change.

(MORETop Chef’s Tom Colicchio)

What is it about the documentary format that allows that change to happen?

It’s clearly more issue-based; you can focus on the nuances. Also, Participant Media has been working on a social campaign to bring various groups focused on hunger issues together. A place where people can come after the film and see how they can get involved.

Most of the information on the site is about contacting your local government representatives. What else can people do?

There are plenty of things that people can do on a local level, but a lot of that stuff is already being done. What I knew about taking care of hunger was what I was doing: raising money and working with organizations that are feeding people. But you look at the amount of work that’s being done, if you look at the amount of money being raised, these great organizations doing amazing stuff—and the problem keeps growing? You’ve got to say to yourself that this isn’t the answer. We’ve seen government do it before. And government can do it. So advocacy is what we’ve come to find is a real important step to helping to end hunger.

What was the most surprising thing that you learned about hunger from making the movie?

Number one, that it can be solved. It’s not something like climate change or terrorism. We can fix it and we’ve fixed it before. Some of the stats that were interesting were that one in two children will at some point rely on public assistance, that hunger affects every county in the United States, and the various costs because of hunger, like health-care costs. When you hear something like that, you go, “Why aren’t we trying to fix this?”

(MORE: What It Means to Go Hungry)

Why do you think we’re not?

During the presidential election, you had primary debates, presidential and vice-presidential debates, and it never came up once. That tells me that the population is not demanding it, because they don’t know about it. When we do the screenings and we ask people, “Did you realize it was this much of a problem?” They’re like, “Absolutely not.” Raising awareness is an important step to get our population focused on this and demanding that we fix it. Hunger needs to become a voting issue, just like the Second Amendment is or the deficit is. It’s time to start labeling people who are not on board with fixing this as pro-hunger.

How does raising awareness of hunger in America fit in with the other side of our growing interest in food, with TV shows like Top Chef?

I think those two groups are at opposite ends. It’s great that people are aware of food, especially when they’re concerned with health. And I think it could possibly be because of that focus on food that they actually look at it and say, “If I can afford healthy food, why can’t someone who’s on public assistance? What do we have to do to make healthy food less expensive?” If you look at the new food pyramid, which is now a plate, the USDA recommends that half that plate have fruits and vegetables on it—well, the money should follow that. Right now, it doesn’t. It’s easy to demonize parents for giving their kids instant noodles and soft drinks, as if they had a choice on that. They don’t have a choice because healthy food is too expensive. We can alleviate some of the issues on the charity side and on a local level, but I think only government can really fix this problem.

(MORE“An Insane, Surreal Day”: ‘Koch’ Documentary Released on Day of Mayor Koch’s Death)

Are you optimistic about that happening?

I’m optimistic because the 1968 film did it before. Hopefully enough people will see the film and get activated around it. What we tried to do is to acknowledge that we have this problem, number one, and, number two, to organize people around it, and then get people to act.