The Taste of the Nation: The cause that stirs Palm Beach’s top chefs

A feast of many small bites, Taste of the Nation benefits the ‘No Kid Hungry’ cause.

For every meticulous stroke of culinary art that goes into Chef Zach Bell’s nationally acclaimed dishes, there is a pang of recognition:

Not far away, there are impoverished and hungry children who cannot access the meals allocated for them by law, thanks to archaic legislation.

How much does Bell, a four-time finalist for the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the South, know about such laws and inequity?

As much as his former boss, Daniel Boulud, knows about Pot au Feu Royale – plenty. Bell, the former Café Boulud head chef who now commands the kitchen at the Addison Reserve Country Club in Delray Beach, is as devoted to the cause of eradicating childhood hunger as he is to local, peak-season ingredients.

On Thursday night, he joins dozens of chefs at the Taste of the Nation grand tasting event at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. For the past decade, Bell has taken part in the “No Kid Hungry” national mission to eradicate child hunger.

“We are chefs and we feed people. We are feeding people who come to our restaurants three, sometimes four times a week. But there are children who are less than a half-mile away who can’t reach those resources,” says Bell, who co-chairs Palm Beach Taste of the Nation with fellow top local chefs Clay Conley (Buccan Palm Beach), Lindsay Autry (Fin and Feather catering) and Tim Lipman (Coolinary Café, Palm Beach Gardens).

As the senior member of the committee, Bell comes to the event fresh from a visit to Capitol Hill, where he and other chefs spoke to congressional staffers about the importance of updating the Child Nutrition Act.

The legislation, which comes up for reauthorization in September, oversees child nutrition efforts such as school-based meals and summer meal programs. But as written, it places limits on how and where these meals are distributed.

The upshot: During the summer, most of the children eligible for government-funded meals do not get them because the distribution locations are out of reach.

“The summer feeding programs within the bill are antiquated and prevent organizations from doing their job. The kids have to come physically to a (meal distribution) site,” notes Bell. “If they don’t get there, the place is not reimbursed for the meal. Sometimes it’s not feasible for a 9-year-old to get there … That’s our major roadblock in the rural and suburban areas.”

Fellow chef Tim Lipman, who is serving as co-chair for the first time this year, says he was stunned to learn of this roadblock.

“This is probably the most startling fact I’ve learned about: Only one in seven of these kids that are prequalified (for government-funded meals) are actually getting the summertime meals. That’s six of seven kids who don’t know what or how they’re going to eat during the summer,” says Lipman.

He joined Bell on the recent trip to Washington, D.C., where the chefs attended the national Taste of the Nation.

“We were very well received on Capitol Hill on a bipartisan level, with extreme interest in what we had to say. I think, no matter what your beliefs are, there’s one thing we don’t want to see in this country: hungry kids,” says Lipman, who feels a personal connection to the cause.

The Titusville-raised chef, whose cuisine pays homage to Florida ingredients and farms, says he was raised on the meal programs overseen by the Child Nutrition Act.

“I had very young parents, very blue collar. I utilized the free breakfast and the discounted lunch at school. But I was raised in an area where these locations were very readily available to me. I didn’t have to worry, and that allowed me to be a kid, to get an education, play sports and succeed,” says Lipman. “And that’s what really gets deep into my soul – these are the future chefs of the world, the future writers and congressmen. If we don’t give them support now, what’s going to happen? We’re in a very unique opportunity to do something. This is a solvable issue.”

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