My journey from suburban mom and chef to GMO and science advocate

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I’m a suburban mom. I became an accidental activist when I uncovered a nefarious corporate/government scheme to poison my tap water and confiscate my property.

Ok, not really. My journey is significantly less dramatic and unlikely to have any Hollywood screenwriters knocking down my door. But it’s an interesting story nonetheless. It began last year with MSNBC, the Wall Street Journal and celebrity chef Tom Colicchio.

A little background about me while I have you on the edge of your seat. After college graduation and an internship on Capitol Hill, I worked for more than a decade as a communications adviser and consultant in Illinois politics. Public policy is my first love; while I struggle with balancing a checkbook, I can nail down a 500-page government budget in no time. There are few areas of politics where I haven’t toiled, including canvassing precincts, registering voters, raising money, writing speeches, developing policy and my favorite – stealing opponent’s yard signs out of the frozen Illinois ground in March.

In my early 30s, my daughter was born and my husband and I decided that I’d quit working to raise our family (husband included). A few years later, we adopted – from Korea – our youngest daughter. I spent the next decade fully engulfed, engaged and enamored with being a stay-at-home mom.

Once my girls began school full-time, I returned to political consulting. After a few years back in the business, I got antsy and wanted to do something else. My husband encouraged me to teach cooking classes out of our home. I started my business – Now You’re Cooking – teaching busy moms like me how to cook. I also began writing a column for two local publications to offer advice about cooking techniques, recipes and meal-planning.

Which brings me back to Tom Colicchio, the celebrity chef who now appears regularly on MSNBC and NBC. I was one of his biggest fans, watching him for years on Bravo’s “Top Chef.” One day, I was getting ready to teach a class and listening to MSNBC when I heard that he was going to be on the next news segment. Great, I thought, maybe he will discuss some new cooking ideas or preview the next Top Chef show.

Not quite. Instead he went on a tirade about the 2014 farm bill and cuts to the food stamp program. He broadly attacked all Republicans, including two in tight races, just a few weeks before the general election. I was surprised and a bit appalled, thinking “Why is this cook lecturing me about politics and food stamps?”

I Googled his name to find out more about Colicchio’s political involvement. Turns out he is quite the activist. He had started a PAC called Food Policy Action that targets Republican lawmakers; he advocates for mandatory GMO labeling; and he had produced a movie about hunger in America (in which Ronald Reagan was blamed for the current “hunger crisis” in our country), among other things.

It didn’t take long for my own political instincts to kick in. I fired off an op-ed to the Wall Street Journal entitled “Tom Colicchio, please shut up.” I was surprised and thrilled that it was accepted. The Journal wisely renamed the piece “Tom Collicchio’s Overcooked Politics” and published it last October. It was a great personal moment for me, easing fears that motherhood had completely torched my brain.

What I didn’t expect was the backlash—and the “legs” as they say in the news business—of the piece. Shortly after the column was published, two nasty blogs about me were posted on Gawker and The Braiser. The Braiser piece mostly highlighted the Twitter exchange between Colicchio and me, one that would last for months until he finally blocked me (more on that in a moment).

The Gawker piece spurred comments from hundreds of people, most of whom didn’t like me very much. I was called everything from a “f*ing idiot” to a paid agent of Big Ag to Peggy Noonan (I loved that one). They mocked me as being an elitist myself. One example: “The author of the article picked apples with her nieces, nephews and a poodle once at an orchard in the Hamptons and it wasn’t very hard at all. In fact it was quite lovely and she paid for the privilege.”

The excitement and the furor quieted down and I didn’t think much more about until I was perusing Politico a few weeks later, in late November of last year. An article discussed the fate of the food movement’s political agenda after the Republican election sweep, including Colicchio’s recent trip to Capitol Hill to present a petition seeking support for mandatory GMO labels. About halfway through the article, my name was mentioned:

“Julie Kelly, a Chicago cooking instructor, argued the celebrity chef should stick to teaching Americans how to cook. “Culinary elites—like political elites—profess to want to help ordinary Americans, but their efforts often miss the mark as they aim to be the smartest guy at the food and wine festival,” she wrote, adding: “Tom, with all due respect, please stick to your pots and pans.”

Wow. Cool. This is fun.

I then came across a video of a conference sponsored by the New York Times known as “Food for Tomorrow”. It was an odd conference because it discussed the future of food but didn’t include any farmers or people who produced food, but mostly people who opined about food. The conference featured a panel with Colicchio and fellow celebrity chef Mario Batali. The moderator’s first question was about my WSJ op-ed: “To be truly useful, a food movement shouldn’t be about politics, wrote Julie Kelly. What on earth are you doing in politics, Tom Colicchio?”

Then it dawned on me: Was I the only person challenging the “culinary elite” and their impractical, “progressive” agenda, so detached from the lives of every day people who grow our food and hard-pressed consumers who prepare and eat it? From people in the developing world who worry where their next meal will be coming from?

The answer appeared to be “yes.” How was it that a little suburban housewife (ok, I’m 5’9”) had emerged as a lone voice challenging the popular chefs and foodie writers who comprise the “food movement”?

I’m sure Colicchio and his “gang” thought that  maybe I should be the one to shut up?

Not a chance. That thought of not being heard only fueled my interest and activism. I began to learn more about federal food programs, genetic engineering, the condemnation of ‘industrial farming’, the organic industry, school lunch programs and other goals of the foodies’ lengthy agenda. I kept writing. The Chicago Tribune published a column by me criticizing Gwyneth Paltrow and her Food Stamp Challenge, the Hollywood celebrity’s lame attempt to live on food stamps for a week.

And I finally joined Twitter (much to the chagrin of my teen daughter, who begged me not to post anything embarrassing!)

My brother had urged me for years to start Tweeting, touting all the news and information available on social media. I refused, thinking it was just another outlet for celebrity worship: see #kanyeandnorth at the zoo! But after the Colicchio dust-up, it was time. The flood of information I received on a daily basis jump started my knowledge-seeking effort. I began following people influential people in the food movement. No, not just foodie commentators like Colicchio, Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman, but engaged scientists and public citizens who really knew the issues, like Kevin Folta, Leah McGrath, Mary Mangan, Robb Fraley and others—those who posted invaluable research about food science and biotechnology or pointed me to websites that actually discussed the science (this website in particular). I was welcomed as a #woofighter.

I learned mine wasn’t the only voice speaking out against the misinformation from the culinary elite. I connected with Jeff Stier, a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research, who had written about these issues for years. We recently co-authored two columns for National Review Online, one about Chipotle and another on Colicchio.

Back to Colicchio. After our first Internet run in last fall, he and I tweeted back and forth for months on issues as diverse as the cost of broccoli to the Benghazi scandal. Some days our exchanges were civil and somewhat humorous; other days, not so much. We traded reading material and continued to debate about GMO labeling and school lunches (he really got irritated when I suggested one solution to unhealthy school-provided lunches is that moms should pack lunches for their own children: “I hope you realize how you sound,” he snapped.. I thought I sounded pretty reasonable.)

Soon after, I saw him on MSNBC again (he just seemed to pop up everywhere) with Jeff Bridges to discuss food policy. He went on his usual rant against Republicans and ended his comments with something insipid, like, “It’s all about the children.” After a few glasses of wine that evening (I’ve since learned that a TUI – tweet under the influence – is a really bad idea), I snapped. I tweeted that he sounded like a “low level political operative.”

The next day, when I looked for his response, I got the news: Colicchio had blocked me. He was fed up with my defense of home-prepared lunches, GMOs and reforms to the school lunch program. While he is certainly entitled to block me, I found it pretty hypocritical that a liberal activist who spends a great deal of time criticizing national leaders and policies on national television was so sensitive when a suburban Chicago mom criticized him.

After a respite from our tweet fight, we just recently reconnected. I told him he wasn’t the most smug, sanctimonious and insufferable person in the food movement anymore, that the honor had been assumed by Gary Hirshberg, the founder of Stonyfield Organic and head of Just Label It, an anti-GMO group that supports mandatory labeling, which would guarantee sweeping financial gains for his small but growing organic empire.. Colicchio said he had listened to me on a radio interview and that my “knowledge of GMO wouldn’t fill up a thimble.” After a few more barbs, we discussed the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight then he wished me a nice weekend.

It’s hard to say – if we ever actually met – whether we would have a fight or a drink.

Regardless, my accidental activism continues. For me, it’s the perfect intersection of politics, policy, food and writing. I view my role as representing one side of what I call “ground zero” of this food fight: suburban moms. My main frustration: while we are clearly the target consumer of the food movement, our voices are strangely muted in this debate. And when we do dare to speak up, we get smeared on Gawker and The Braiser.

Going forward, I hope to lend a voice to this important discussion and encourage other moms like me to become more educated and involved. In my opinion, this debate about biotechnology is a defining moment, not just in terms of the American food supply but its potential to alleviate hunger, disease, malnutrition and poverty around the world. We need the full story and I hope, in a very small way, to contribute to telling it.

Julie Kelly is the owner of Now You’re Cooking in Orland Park, IL. She is a cooking instructor and food writer, but her biggest job is mom. She can be reached at nowurcooking@att.net or on Twitter at @Julie_kelly2.

  • mem_somerville

    Heh. It’s nice to hear the backstory to your activism. It’s also funny to me that we are probably polar opposites on many political fronts. But we share a common dismay of Tom.

    Way to build bipartisan bridges, Tom!

    • Julie Kelly

      We might be, although I’m a libertarian. Don’t like being told what to do or how to think. I’d venture to say we’re probably alike in that regard! I’ve learned a lot from you…including the importance of keeping a sense of humor!

  • RobertWager

    It is always interesting watching the politics of food south of the border. Look forward to more from you Julie.

    • hyperzombie

      I don’t really get US politics, food stamps(do they mail food?), or the school lunch program (why cant they just bring a lunch like normal people?). It all just baffles me. I get the basics, Republicans are gun loving, corporate greed mongers, that hate everyone and the environment, and Democrat’s are lying scumbags, that will sell the soul of the constitution for a few votes, and hate all white people. I just don’t get it why there is so much contempt and hatred directed towards someone with opposing views?

      • Eric Bjerregaard

        Because U.S politics is argued at the same level as the g.e. debate. The leaders of both sides are analogous to the anti leaders who want g.e. crops banned, and they are addicted to and competing for the power. To make decisions that should be made at local levels. Like Mom being responsible and packing her kids lunch, like4 normal people…..used to be.

      • kumidaiko

        They are called food stamps because when the program first started they were, quite literally, stamps. Then they morphed into coupons which basically functioned like currency. You could exchange them at the register for your groceries instead of using cash.

        The school lunch program is an off shoot of the food stamps program as it focuses, mainly, on the low income who may not have sufficient funds to send their kids in with lunch. Later, the program was expanded to offer the lunches to all students with those who were able to afford paying out of pocket doing so while those with limited resources were given lunch for free. Bringing in a lunch is also an option.

        As for the rest of it, well, I’ll refrain from commenting.

        • hyperzombie

          Thanks for the info. But why don’t they just give them money, isn’t that the universal food stamp?

          So, i get it, the school lunch program is a means tested program and kids that have wealthy parents have to pay a bit extra to support the few that have very little. That makes sense.

          • kumidaiko

            Why don’t they just give them cash? Because they can then use that money for things other than food. A drug addict will use it for drugs. An alcoholic will use it for booze. A gambling addict will use it to, well, gamble.

            The system is made so that folks with low income can feed themselves and their kids, not their addictions.

          • hyperzombie

            Darn irresponsible Drug addicts and Gamblers..
            One more question, if you give the poor money for only food, why do you need a school lunch program?

    • Julie Kelly

      Thanks, Robert! Lots of Canadians making informed, important contributions to this debate.

  • JoeFarmer

    Colicchio strikes me as very Palinesque: Incurious about science and facts in general, but not the least bit shy about flapping his jaws.

    • Julie Kelly

      Oh do I agree with you on this point. And he would just love that comparison I’m sure!

      • JoeFarmer

        Like Mem, we might not agree on politics, but Colicchio is the plumber you hope doesn’t show up at your house, no matter how much water is in your basement.

        Maybe you can explain why there is even such a thing as, “celebrity chefs.”

        Why not celebrity mail carriers? Or celebrity electricians?

  • Ben Fairbanks

    “the most smug, sanctimonious and insufferable person in the food movement”
    I thought that was Jaime Oliver. Or Pete Evans.

    • Julie Kelly

      Lots of competition for that title, to be sure.

  • runningfish

    Great Read! Thanks for sticking your neck out into the foodie/celebrity chef woo- world.

    • Julie Kelly

      Thank you! Happy to learn and contribute in a small way…

  • Victor

    I don’t want Frankenstein food. We can’t get away from all the poisons in our food, water, air and anything else we absorb, meanwhile the human race gets sicker, dumber, less fertile and more susceptible to birth defects and diseases. And all those who make money on that say “Trust me”. You eat it.

    • gmoeater

      Victor, you mean Frankenfood. That’s what you activists call it. You want to be correct with your activist terminology. I agree with you. You shouldn’t eat it! Eat organic, or non-GMO certified. Oh, but you better check up on those foods that are organic that you eat that have been produced through mutagenesis, including blasting with radiation and chemicals . You did know that, correct? And stay out of chipotle.

    • gsmullennix

      Hmmm, “meanwhile the human race…” Would you provide any data which supports your pic? Except for those countries like Russia with very high rate of alcoholism, the rest of the human race is doing quite well on the health, smarts area. With massive abortion rates in Russia, fertility seems futile.

  • cindy chan phillips

    a lot of food for thought Julie!

  • Tripp Funderburk

    This is a super cute story about about cooking teacher who writes a letter to the WSJ that is printed and now she thinks she can write intelligently about climate science. Unfortunately, Julie is not smart enough to understand the overwhelming evidence that climate change is real and caused by man. From her kitchen, she tweets at distinguished climate scientists trolling them to try and find some evidence that she can understand that will prove that climate change is a hoax. She is a useful idiot for the oil and gas industries and just an idiot to everyone else. CO2 in the atmosphere has increased 40% since the industrial revolution (from 280 ppm to 410 today). CO2 is a greenhouse gas that traps heat. This was taught in elementary school. We just had the 3 hottest years in recorded history. Both poles have the lowest ice extent in recorded history. The Great Barrier Reef bleached in 2016 and again in 2017, the first time there was back-to-back bleaching. 22% of the corals on the GBR died last year due to record heat. The physical evidence is overwhelming and backs up all the science that predicted global warming, dying reefs, and melting arctic ice. 80 National Academies of Science agree that man’s GHG emissions are causing climate change and global warming. Every scientific society in the world shares those views. However, Julie Kelly the accidental activist and hero to the “make your own lunch” Moms feels she is qualified to write climate denial propaganda. I find it disgusting and I pity Julie’s lack of self-awareness, I also wonder what kind of world she wants for her children. At current rates, coral reefs will be mostly gone by 2050. Julie, take your kids to see the reefs now because if we don’t take action due to the massive misinformation campaign by oil and coal that duped you, they will only get to see historical documentaries about the once beautiful reefs.