In his economics classes at Connecticut College, David Barber ’88 learned how to examine complex problems from different points of view. It turned out to be great preparation for his life’s work as a sustainable food entrepreneur and educator. Barber is co-owner (with his chef brother Dan) of Blue Hill Restaurant in Greenwich Village - site of the Obamas’ famous date night - and co-founder of the non-profit Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Tarrytown, NY.
On March 9, Barber spoke to a standing-room-only campus audience on “Is a Sustainable Food System Realistic?” With facts, figures and graphs, he sketched a sobering picture of worldwide water scarcity, barren soil and an epidemic of obesity and diabetes. All of these, he emphasized, are linked to our food system’s overdependence on monocultures, irrigation, pesticides and petroleum-based fertilizers. “People need to debate the food system,” he said. “It’s much better than a few people making decisions and everyone else going on the ride.”
He opened with a story about Boris, a boar that played a leading role in Stone Barns’ pork production until he became so large that the sows were afraid of him. On a working farm, a 900-pound boar with performance issues is an expensive liability. Boris’s future soon became a point of controversy and debate. Farmers, chefs, visitors, the media and members of the public - everyone had an opinion. One lesson learned: “Don’t name your boar,” Barber said. “It makes things complicated.”
After his campus presentation, Barber joined students and faculty for dinner, and the conversation turned to such hot-button issues as genetically modified crops, food security and public perceptions that sustainable food is only realistic for rich people. Students talked about their work with Sprout!, the College’s organic garden club, and FRESH New London, a local non-profit that connects sustainable food with social justice. “The issue is not food production,” Barber said. “It’s poverty and income distribution. Those of us who can afford it should pay more for our food.”
Wondering what happened to Boris? In the end, he was the star of an extraordinary sausage and beer dinner at Blue Hill restaurant. But his greatest contribution, Barber maintains, was the public conversation he provoked about where food comes from, how it is produced and prepared, and how consumers influence the process. “Food issues are not black and white,” Barber said. “There’s a lot for us to talk about.”
-Patricia M. Carey