'Top Chef' Host: Senate School Lunch Bill Didn't Go 'Far Enough' to Fight 'National Crisis' of Child Obesity

"Top Chef" judge Tom Colicchio rang alarm bells about child obesity on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" Wednesday, saying it is now a "national health crisis." Colicchio warned that the recent Senate school lunch legislation did not go "far enough" and that access to healthy school meals needs to be increased for kids to save future health care costs.

"It's a pretty good bill, but I don't think it goes far enough," the chef complained of the school lunch bill. "They need to increase access for kids."

"After-school programs, after-school periods, breakfast programs, weekend programs, summer programs – those aren't included in the Senate bill; they're included in the House bill," Colicchio mused. "Obesity has become a national health crisis." He said the problem poses "billions" of dollars in future health care costs if it will not be addressed properly.

"Morning Joe" co-host Mika Brzezinski, a nutrition-warrior herself, agreed and argued that obese children need to be viewed as victims – as children "whose future is cut short before it even starts."

"They've got nothing, because their health is always in jeopardy, their life will be shortened, their options will be limited," Mika lamented.  

Both Mika and Colicchio chose the "malnourished" label for obese children, and Mika lauded the FDA food guidelines at restaurants, movie theaters and grocery stores as a step in the right direction.

"Obesity is actually malnutrition. It's not overeating. It's malnourishment," argued Colicchio.

A transcript of the segment, which aired on September 8 at 8:41 a.m. EDT, is as follows:
MIKA BRZEZINSKI: And joining us now, the lead judge for "Top Chef," Tom Kilickio, who is here to discuss the school lunch legislation in front of Congress, which is making its way – maybe not perfect –

TOM COLICCHIO, Judge, "Top Chef": Well, the Senate passed the bill.

BRZEZINSKI: Yeah.

COLICCHIO: And It's a pretty good bill, but I don't think it goes far enough.

BRZEZINSKI: Yeah?

COLICCHIO: Yeah. There's a couple of – a couple issues with it. One, they need to increase access for kids. And so, automatic enrollment through Medicaid is something that the House bill is putting forth. After-school programs, after-school ___ periods, breakfast programs, weekend programs, summer programs – those aren't included in the Senate bill, they're included in the House bill. The other, sort of, big issue is that the Senate bill, even though it's a good bill, they're taking 2 billion dollars from SNAP program. So essentially, they're stealing from dinner to pay for lunch. And, you know, that doesn't make a whole lot of sense. The House bill, it's an 8 billion dollar bill over ten years, and they said they'll find the offsets to make it work.

BRZEZINSKI: You know, if anyone wants to understand why this is important, and why we need to do this, and many other things – take a look at New York. Take a look at the kids in New York. And the numbers that we saw in the headlines over the weekend, in terms of obese children. And, especially in poor areas, and in poorer areas there are many more. And... there are 51 percent in Queens, it's unbelievable.

COLICCHIO: Queens, the Bronx, but also rural areas too. Places like Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas – you know, obesity has become a national health crisis.

BRZEZINSKI: Yes.

COLICCHIO: And talk about saving money on health care. This will save dividends down the road, if we take care of this problem now. This is going to cost us billions of dollars in health care, if they don't take care of this.

MIKE BARNACLE: Did you say that one of the bills, the Senate bill not the House bill, doesn't include breakfast for school kids?

COLICCHIO: No, it includes breakfast. Well, no, it doesn't include breakfast. And it also does not include weekend feeding and summer months. You know, hunger doesn't go away in the summer. It's still there.

BARNACLE: Well no. If you look at those numbers – 51 percent obesity in Queens, 12 percent on the Upper West Side – if you look at the kids at the bus stop, the kids on the way to school, I'll tell you what they have for breakfast. They have a fish sandwich and a big O from McDonalds on their way to school, and their day calorically health-wise is on the way down.

BRZEZINSKI: Oh God.

COLICCHIO: Well that's the biggest problem right now. You talk about obesity. Obesity is actually malnutrition. It's not overeating. It's malnourishment. And so, there's, there was a study done – in the summer months, children are putting on weight now. Which you'd think the opposite, you'd think they're more active. But no, they're putting on more weight, and the reason being is when they're in school programs, they were getting breakfast and they were getting lunch. They were getting more nutritious meals, they were not just getting empty calories and fat and sugar.

BRZEZINSKI: And you know, I get criticism for how staunch I can be on this topic, but when you look at a child who is obese, you look at a child whose future is cut short before it even starts. They've got nothing, because their health is always in jeopardy, their life will be shortened, their options will be limited. And now we have classrooms with more children who are obese than children who are not. And I don't know why – I even got reactions on Twitter saying "Don't use the word 'obese,' you're marginalizing people," or "You're adding to the hatred." And I'm thinking we need to use the word, we need to address this.

COLICCHIO: Let's call them "malnourished," because they are.

BRZEZINSKI: They are malnourished children, whose futures are being cut short. Now we have other things that have happened. Recently the FDA put out these calorie count guidelines – grocery stores, movie theatres, trains, airlines – everyone's trying to potentially get into it to give people a sense of what they're eating, not just children, adults. What more can be done – I guess my question to you, as a restaurant-eur, and on "Top Chef" restaurants – do they have a responsibility here to make food that's better, that's more nutritional?

COLICCHIO: Well, if you're talking about the kind of restaurants that I have, that are sort of high-end restaurants, we're using whole ingredients, we're not buying canned food or processed food – so we're already putting healthy food on the table. But it's the fast food restaurants that you have to worry about. That's where the majority of the people are actually getting their food from these days. And so those are the restaurants –

ADRIANNA HUFFINGTON: But I'd say the fast food restaurants, and also the production of food.– I mean, what kind of cooperation are you getting from the kind of manufacturers that produce so highly-processed food, that that's where the malnourishment that you are talking about occurs?

COLICCHIO: Well you're right, and I think the biggest problem though is we're subsidizing the worst foods for us. And that seems to make them cheap, like sugar, and corn for high fructose corn syrup – those are the things that we're subsidizing at the risk of our health. And that's why these products are cheap, because they're being subsidized, and that's why people with low incomes can afford them. But they're the wrong foods to feed our children.

BRZEZINSKI: We all need to try and get our arms around this.
Matt Hadro
Matt Hadro
Matt Hadro was a News Analyst for the Media Research Center's News Analysis Division from 2010 through early 2014