Politically, the ubiquity of food is both a strength and a weakness. Food can be a hunger issue, an immigration issue, an animal-welfare issue, a labor issue, an environmental issue, a farming issue, a health issue, a trade issue.

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CLEVELAND — After a long day at the Republican National Convention, protesters, delegates and reporters shuffled past the entrance to Mabel’s BBQ, Michael Symon’s restaurant in the heart of downtown.

Inside, another celebrity chef was just getting started. Tom Colicchio, the politically focused New York culinary personality, picked up a microphone and began speaking to a crowd of about 100 people who seemed to be at the party as much for the free brisket and strawberry brambles as for the discussion.

One was Rep. Lamar Smith, the conservative from Texas. As Colicchio linked the plight of farmers to immigration, the environment, health-care costs and the national-security threat posed by overweight soldiers, Smith added another piece of smoked turkey breast to his plate and sneaked upstairs to eat.

He was followed by a reporter, who asked whether food issues were gaining traction among lawmakers, and whether the nation’s food system may get any attention in the presidential election.

“I’m going to disappoint you,” he said. “I don’t know anything about that. The barbecue is good, though.”

Even though the cultural conversation around food and agriculture seems to grow louder every day, the food system was on the sidelines here last week, as it is at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia this week. Even among those most likely to push for it, food isn’t getting much attention as a political issue.

“What people think is cool about food and what people think is cool about politics are different,” said Matt Birong, a Democratic delegate from Vermont who continues to support Sen. Bernie Sanders.

He went to Philadelphia from Vergennes, where he runs the 3 Squares Café. He supports local farmers and has opinions about federal subsidies. But how the nation grows, processes and distributes food is less important to him than labor issues and the economic challenges of a small business. “For the national delegation, it might come up as a sidebar conversation for a few of us,” he said, “but as far as a functional initiative, it has never been approached.”

National agenda

Granted, it would be especially difficult to wedge food issues into what is shaping up to be one of the wildest elections in recent memory. And terrorism, immigration, racism and gun control seem more pressing than school lunch.

Still, food soon could become a more lucrative piece of political currency, some politicians, pollsters and convention veterans say.

“Is a person going to choose between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton based on food issues? No,” said Jerry Hagstom, an agricultural journalist who has been to every presidential convention since 1984. “But politicians are getting into it from a policy standpoint in areas like health and food waste and food safety because it’s becoming a big issue of concern to voters.”

Politically, the ubiquity of food is both a strength and a weakness. Food can be a hunger issue, an immigration issue, an animal-welfare issue, a labor issue, an environmental issue, a farming issue, a health issue, a trade issue.

“Terrorism is the only problem that is unrelated to this, but somehow in Washington, D.C., food and its connection to health and the economy has pretty much escaped the attention of everyone from Congress to Senate to the candidates for president,” said Dariush Mozaffarian, the dean of the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, who has made the case that food is the nation’s biggest economic issue.

People who think food needs to be higher on the national agenda should do a better job connecting the dots, said Bob Kerrey, the former governor and U.S. Democratic senator from Nebraska.

“You need to start off by understanding that agriculture is primarily a manufacturing business and make food an economic issue, rather than labeling it as a health or environmental issue,” he said. “Then you have to walk across the gulf between that and the people who are actually buying the food.”

But to many voters, food is not that complicated. “Politicians are intimidated by it, but voters aren’t,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster and political strategist. Last fall, she joined the Republican public opinion researcher Christine Matthews to study how food issues play out with voters. The bipartisan poll was commissioned by Food Policy Action and the HEAL Food Alliance, the group behind the barbecue party featuring Colicchio as part of the Plate of the Union campaign.

To draw attention to the cause, organizers recruited Larry Robinson, who sells rum cake and jambalaya out of his food truck in Miami. His truck, rebranded with the Plate of the Union logo, traveled to both conventions and will pop up in a dozen more cities before the election.

“I’m not here for the politics,” said Robinson, who has family members with diabetes. “We need kids to get healthier food.”

Food voters

The place where food and family intersect is ripe for developing a strong block of food voters, especially in swing states, pollsters said. The organic-milk mom could be the new bipartisan soccer mom. With Wal-Mart selling organic produce, farmers’ markets in nearly every community and McDonald’s promoting a new less-is-more ingredient philosophy the line is growing faint between what were once considered latte-drinking liberals and red-state beer buyers.

“To some degree, it really does blur party lines,” said Rep. Thomas Massie, a libertarian-minded Republican from Kentucky who is popular with some members of the tea party and raises grass-fed cattle. “It’s a missed opportunity among politicians.”

Millennial voters are more articulate about food issues than any generation before, and less apt to be loyal to any one political party. And food is one of the few issues in which lawmakers from different parties can find common ground, Massie said.

Voters, conservative and liberal, are concerned about the environmental impact of certain industrial agricultural practices and understand the connection between food and health. Large-scale agribusiness and powerhouse farming organizations still hold great sway over agricultural policy, but “the degree to which big ag lines politicians’ pockets has reached the point where they can’t be ignored,” Massie said.

He points to the Food Freedom movement, which has gained bipartisan support in the quest to loosen federal raw-milk regulations and oversight of how livestock can be killed on small farms. Much of what’s written on the Food Freedom USA website — which also features an endorsement of Trump — reads like a speech that could be delivered over dinner at Chez Panisse, including the right to GMO-free, whole, raw, fresh unprocessed locally raised food.

Even some speakers at the Great American Farm Luncheon, a Republican convention tradition sponsored by the biggest players in farming and agribusiness, understand that the culture is shifting, said Hagstrom, the agricultural journalist, who covered the lunch for his news service, The Hagstrom Report, and who planned to attend a similar cocktail reception at the Democratic event.

Farmers and ranchers are frustrated with taxes and regulations that put what many consider unrealistic limits on labor, conservation practices and food labels. “They feel beleaguered,” Hagstrom said.

Many recognize that it’s time to do a better job explaining their side of agriculture to urban consumers, college students and “people who live in a loft,” David Daniels, the director of the Ohio Agriculture Department, said at the lunch.

They may find more common ground than they think. Consider Michael Brinkley, a conservative North Carolina farmer who raises hogs and vegetables on what used to be tobacco land, and Emily Evans, a liberal Ohio State University senior who is studying sustainable community development.

He looks for someone who may help remove federal regulations that get in the way of raising the food he sells to farmers’ markets. She looks for candidates who care about the exploitation of farmworkers and food inequality. But they both consider a candidate’s position on food when they vote.

“Food is not a red or blue issue,” she said.