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Cooking Stars Hold Pols’ Feet to the Fire About Africa

Culinary heavies all charged up about energy poverty fanned out across the Capitol Wednesday in a last-ditch effort to illuminate lawmakers about the importance of empowering Africa.  

(Warren Rojas/CQ Roll Call)
(Warren Rojas/CQ Roll Call)

The lobbying blitz was coordinated by ONE, a nonprofit that works to bring change in the global health and social justice arenas. The current campaign is focused on carrying the stalled Electrify Africa Act of 2014 across the legislative finish line before lawmakers put a bow on the swirling cromnibus package and wrap up their official business for the year. Tom Hart, U.S. executive director of ONE, told reporters the planned policy change — a plan that involves reallocating approximately $7 billion in preauthorized funds and providing additional latitude to the Overseas Private Investment Corporation as to how said cash could be disbursed.  

“It just needs to be attached to legislation and moved,” Hart said, adding the proposal is projected to provide first-time access to reliable energy to some 50 million people.  

“Bizarre Foods” host Andrew Zimmern described trips taken through Ethiopia that have convinced him the country has some of the most fertile land around. But the lack of electricity, he argued, makes it nearly impossible to irrigate the soil, sustain crop-protecting hoop houses, refrigerate trucks to accommodate long-range transportation of foodstuffs or allow for the safe storage of agricultural products that do happen to reach any far-flung destinations.  

He said providing unfettered access to the energy grid would, in the long run, alleviate existing U.S. aid by transitioning to “learn how to fish rather than giving a fish.” Additionally, Zimmern estimated that freeing up these procedurally locked funds could open the door to jumpstarting similar efforts in other energy-starved corners of the globe.  

“The template then can be taken and applied to other parts of the world,” he said, listing Kazakhstan and South America as two potential beneficiaries.  

Restaurateur and “Top Chef” judge Hugh Acheson expressed hope the revenue neutrality of the bill would shield Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., from outside attacks.  

Top Chef judge Hugh Acheson and Top Chef alumna Nina Compton clown around with a cardboard cut out of House Speaker John Boehner after a luncheon.
Acheson and Top Chef alumna Nina Compton clown around with a cardboard cut-out of  Boehner after a luncheon. (Warren Rojas/CQ Roll Call)

“The constituents don’t get to say, ‘This is about someone across the world we don’t even know.’ This is about people dying. And it’s easily preventable,” Acheson counseled. “The money’s already there.”  

“Pati’s Mexican Table” host Patricia Jinich, a one-time political analyst who said she jumped ship to join the ranks of the cooking world after exhaustively researching Peruvian ceviches, racked her brain to try and come up with a downside to passing the provision.  

“I’m just sitting here baffled, thinking, ‘Why aren’t they doing it?’” she said.  

As part of their outreach, the group members huddled with Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky. — whom Acheson said expressed an interest in “keeping coal as a viable option” — as well as Sens. Al Franken, D-Minn.; Marco Rubio, R-Fla.; Bob Corker, R-Tenn.; and Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.  

Hart noted that critics have lodged complains against the anticipated uptick in carbon emissions generated by the program expansion, but suggested that those concerns have been taken under consideration.  

Zimmern acknowledged this is far from a cakewalk. “There is still some convincing and hand holding that needs to happen on both sides of the aisle,” he said.  

On a more personal note, Zimmern, who at one point quoted the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (“We all do better when we all do better.”), said he feels privileged to have the time and resources to educate his family — as well as his millions of viewers — about food, but knows that’s not the case for everyone.  

“Eating well in America has become a class issue,” he warned. “It’s unfair and it’s not right.”  

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