Photograph courtesy of Bekah Vigil.
Jill Isenbarger, CEO of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, will be speaking at the Washington D.C. Food Tank Summit, “Cultivating the Next Generation of Young Food Leaders,” which will be held in partnership with George Washington University, World Resources Institute, the National Farmers Union, Future Farmers of America, and the National Young Farmers Coalition on February 28, 2018.
Prior to Stone Barns, Isenbarger worked at The Nature Conservancy, Harvard University, and an international architectural firm. At Stone Barns Center, a nonprofit education center and 80-acre farm working to create a healthy and sustainable food system, Isenbarger works to forge partnerships among farmers, engineers, policy makers, chefs, conservationists, educators, and others. Isenbarger aims to help bring about a system of agriculture and a way of eating that values ecological health, strong communities, and the integrity of place, region, and season.
Food Tank had the opportunity to speak with Jill about her work at Stone Barns Center and her hopes for young farmers and entrepreneurs seeking to change the food system.
Food Tank (FT): What originally inspired you to get involved in your work?
Jill Isenbarger (JI): I worked in marketing for a global conservation organization. Many of the issues that we talked to the public about were abstract – global warming, ocean acidification, large-scale land conversion, and ecosystem services. The way our food is grown, however, has a great influence on the environment. Working in the food system is a more tangible and visceral way for people to make an emotional connection to both a particular place and to the planet overall. If you want to enjoy a diet of variety, you must have healthy soil and water. Food can be the gateway for connecting to the environment.
FT: How are you helping to build a better food system?
JI: Whether it’s an in-depth conversation at one of our many convenings at Stone Barns, leading a tour or hands-on activity on our farm, or through a meal at our partner restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns, we try to create experiences that people want to replicate. We strive to create an inviting environment where people can explore their own ideas and think more creatively about food and farming.
FT: What’s the most pressing issue in food and agriculture that you’d like to see solved?
JI: We need to transform farming away from resource-intensive and exploitative methods toward one that relies on natural systems and biological processes. We can encourage people to eat in harmony with regional ecosystems while reducing their reliance on fossil fuel-based inputs to sustain agricultural productivity in the future.
FT: What innovations in food and agriculture are you most excited about?
JI: I am excited about supply-driven cuisine. For example, Ayr Muir of Clover Food Lab buys what regional farmers need to grow to support healthy ecosystems in the Northeast and he creates dishes around these ingredients in his restaurant. He strives to make everything delicious and regularly has long lines of customers.
FT: What is one small change every person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference?
JI: Every person should avoid throwing away food. Up to 40 percent of food in the United States is never eaten, yet one in eight Americans struggles to put food on the table.
FT: What is the best opportunity for young or aspiring farmers and entrepreneurs to get a foothold in America’s agricultural future?
JI: The best opportunity lies in building lasting relationships. Some of the most amazing stories I hear are about regional economies that are developing around food and agriculture. Steve Jones, a wheat breeder in Washington State, shows the value of lasting relationships in a career. He links university scientists, growers, bakers, millers, brewers, maltsters, and the whole host of characters needed to support a regional economy for grain. Find a local opportunity and create deeper and longer relationships.
FT: How can we best stimulate young people’s curiosity about food and agriculture and encourage their participation in building healthier food systems?
JI: My friend Rick Schneiders says we need to create food experiences that invite feelings of memory, trust, and romance. There are powerful emotions tied to food; 61 percent of millennials say they want something that reminds them of their grandmother’s cooking, 66 percent are willing to pay more for something that is locally produced, and 81 percent say they love to explore new cultures through food. A healthier food system comes from the memory of a great meal, grown and cooked by trusted souls, and eaten with someone you love.
The D.C. Food Tank Summit is SOLD OUT but tickets remain for our next two Summits. Register HERE for the Seattle Food Tank Summit, Growing Food Policy on March 17. Register HERE for the Boston Food Tank Summit, Exploring the Paradox of Hunger and Obesity on April 19. These events will sell out – register today!