All about the Benjamin. If food media had a Page Six, you’d surely find this tasty tidbit lurking therein: Claire Benjamin DiMattina, executive director of Food Policy Action (FPA), a group co-founded in 2012 by chef Tom Colicchio to promote policy change through education and its publication of the National Food Policy Scorecard, is leaving the organization after more than three years to join McDonald’s as senior director of U.S. public affairs.
Before she led FPA, DiMattina spent more than 10 years on the Hill, directing food policy legislation for Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Congressman Peter Welch (D-VT), and was a legislative director for Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-ME), who has been especially influential in food system reform efforts through her role on the House Appropriations Committee.
“As long as I have known Claire she’s been committed to reforming our food system and promoting policies that support sustainable and responsible agriculture,” said Rep. Pingree in a statement to NFE. “I’m encouraged to see Claire take on a position where she can apply her vast knowledge of sustainable food and agriculture policy to making meaningful changes in the private sector.”
In 2016, DiMattina nailed a spot on Food & Wine and Fortune magazine’s “Most Innovative Women in Food and Drink” list. “As executive director of D.C.-based Food Policy Action, DiMattina calls attention to the importance of policies that impact childhood nutrition, provide access to healthy food, and support farmers,” the profile read. “DiMattina has also done an incredible job of leveraging chefs to help advocate for better food labeling and programs like summer meals for children.”
So, a noted food reformer in King Arches’ court? There likely will be much speculation about DiMattina’s motivations, but the move makes sense—at least, for the company. As we’ve been reporting, McDonald’s USA president Chris Kempczinski told shareholders last month that the fast-food chain was losing as many as 2 million customers a week. This, after Fitch Ratings downgraded the burger giant’s credit rating from BBB+ to BBB in November.
Though, beyond just its sales slump, the chain also appears to be undergoing something of brand crisis. USA Today reports that earlier this week, labor and consumer groups in France, Italy, and Germany filed three separate complaints, alleging that the company drove up consumer costs by requiring its franchisees in those countries to display higher prices than at company-operated sites, and charging franchise holders excessively higher rents for their locations.
In the United States, the company announced last month that it will be using fresh beef in its Quarter Pounder burgers in most locations by mid-2018. And the change has apparently gotten Wendy’s braids in a bunch (because it thought it had cornered the market on fresh-beef messaging). CNBC documents Wendy’s response here. “So you’ll still use frozen beef in MOST of your burgers in ALL of your restaurants? Asking for a friend,” Wendy’s tweeted at McD late last month.
DiMattina evidently will be one of several new hires. As the Chicago Tribune reported Wednesday, three executives (including Lance Richards, vice president of menu strategy) are being replaced in a management shakeup the Tribune says represents “a continued sea change” for the company.
If McDonald’s stands to benefit from any moves it makes in the direction of relevance, what’s in it for DiMattina? “I’m excited to be joining McDonald’s at a time when it is making bold, tangible moves for its customers and is transforming its business,” she said in a statement sent to Politico’s Morning Agriculture.
The food reform movement can be every bit as predictably partisan as politics can be. (See, for example, the tweet below, from Gary Ruskin of US Right to Know.) “Big” and “small” are often pitted against each other in the ongoing change narrative. But if the recent wave of corporate consolidations is any indication, the lines between the two are increasingly blurry. As former White House chef and senior policy advisor for nutrition policy and “Let’s Move!” campaign director, Sam Kass, said to a room full of food reformers at the James Beard Foundation conference in New York City in the fall, Big and small must work in the same system, and mostly together, in order for change to reach the maximum number of people. “Scale matters,” he said. “I don’t think we’re going to return to Carlo Petrini’s vision of the world. It only matters to me if we’re reaching a lot of people.”
Reach may be part of DiMattina’s game plan. McDonald’s sheer size means any changes made to its status quo will be felt by consumers en masse. Policy is only one way to upend a paradigm, and it can be slow to move. Reform efforts made at scale by a corporation can be seen quite quickly on the plate (or, in the case of McDonald’s, inside its recycled, fiber-based packaging).
For its part, FPA seems to think DiMattina’s move has possibilities. “Claire is exactly the kind of change agent we need to see moving into food company leadership,” said Ken Cook, president of Environmental Working group and co-founder of FPA in a statement to NFE. “It’s a measure of the good food movement’s growing clout that companies like McDonald’s are responding to the marketplace shift to cleaner, simpler ingredient lists. We have a long way to go, but leaders like Claire have the potential to pull from the inside while others push from the outside for healthier, more sustainable food.”
Treating individuals in the food game (in journalistic coverage as well as idle chatter) as being either saints, or quislings, or zealots has always been simplistic as much as it has been tempting. The union of Claire Benjamin DiMattina and the legacy of Ray Kroc shows that we are in a place where such snap judgments cannot any longer be automatically served up with our side of fries.