Family's food stamp challenge not universally applauded

It’s not every day that a celebrity chef can be the catalyst for a pissing match between Fox News and MSNBC, but New York-based Mario Batali has managed to be just that.

Batali, who together with his family of four recently completed a weeklong challenge to live off food stamps, was recently the subject of a heated debate that took to the airwaves in the midst of the Batalis’ living on meals that cost an average of  $1.48 per person.

Fox News’ Greg Gutfeld was the first to sound off when he asserted that Batali was taking up the challenge as a means to protest potential budget cuts to the food stamp program. “Does this make you want to slap him around?” he asked rhetorically.

MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell was having none of it and quickly shot off a scathing critique of Gutfeld’s segment and a passionate defense of Batali, who supports a number of food-related charitable causes. “Why do Mario Batali’s kindness, generosity and concern for the poor … make these people so uncomfortable?” O’Donnell wondered.

This battling between television commentators suggests to me that Mitt Romney and Barack Obama must not have had much to say if they can be toppled from the headlines by the eating habits of one prominent chef and his support to maintain funding for the national food stamp program.

Seriously, the squabble seems ridiculous and certainly doesn’t do much in the way of advancing the fight against hunger, or does it?

Batali, who told journalists during the challenge that he was starving and his two teenage sons subsisted largely on peanut butter and jelly, is on the board of the food relief agency Food Bank for New York City.

When it comes to making an effort to stamp out hunger across America, no industry does as much as the restaurant industry, and Batali certainly isn’t the lone crusader. A cast of thousands—including some very prominent chefs, and just as importantly, rank-and-file foodservice employees—joins him.

Hundreds of local food banks work with restaurants, large and small, across this country each and every day. Restaurant workers give their time and money to support numerous hunger-related causes, while celebrity chefs devote thousands of hours to raise awareness and money to feed the less fortunate.

Just a partial list of organizations that have been embraced by restaurateurs and industry manufacturers alike includes Share Our Strength, Feeding America, Stop Hunger Now, Alliance to End Hunger, Meals on Wheels Association of America, Bread for the World, World Hunger Relief and RESULTS, and The End Hunger Network.

We’ve all read and heard the excruciating details about the rise of poverty and hunger in America: One in six Americans, or roughly 49 million people, struggles with hunger; half of all Americans will live in poverty before age 65; 16 million American children go to bed hungry every night and the poverty is at its highest level in 52 years. Sadly, those are only the American stats. Throw in the rest of the world and the outlook is even worse: One in three children in developing countries is malnourished; more than 925 million people, or 13.6 percent of the world’s population, were malnourished in 2010.

Batali, who says he took on the challenge as a way to get people talking and not as a publicity stunt, has since resumed his normal eating habits, and Fox and MSNBC have gotten back to what they do best—taking political snipes at the left and right, respectively.

Undoubtedly the media uproar was more about TV ratings than it was about hunger, but even if only a handful of people were inspired to action during the debate, I say move over Romney and Obama. We’ve got plenty of work ahead.

Chef Profiles, Feature, Philanthropy