The Environmental Studies program welcomed food writer Barry Estabrook as our distinguished visiting scholar last week. Barry came from his home in Vermont for a packed three days, visiting multiple classes, dining with students and faculty alike, and delivering a public lecture to an overflowing room on his recent book Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit.
We live in the middle of a “foodie revolution,” popularized by writers such as Barbara Kingsolver and Michael Pollan – so much so that topics like local food and organic farming have almost become passé. Barry’s talk thus was both a pleasant surprise and also a little startling, as he quickly dispensed with the issue of the food itself – though not before pointing out the insipid taste, deficient nutrient content, and physics-defying durability of the modern tomato — and turned his attention to the labor process that produces food. Most of his talk concerned the labor conditions of the migrant tomato pickers of southern Florida — which are, not to mince words, a modern form of slavery — as well as the attempts by those workers to band together and demand change, even incremental change. It was a sobering talk with a note of optimism at the end, at the very least for the power of activism to change the buying practices of large food corporations and fast food chains. Barry has written several excellent long-form pieces of journalism about this issue, which you can read here and here. He also maintains a blog that features updates on food and the culture and politics of food.
Barry’s visit served another interesting purpose, which was to drive home how refreshing and educational it can be for both faculty and students to hear from a popular writer and journalist rather than an academic scholar. The clamor only grows louder throughout higher education to connect academia to the outside world, to take on real-world problems, to engage with the public — and yet the list of distinguished speakers and presenters invited to universities and colleges across the country continues to be dominated by academics. I am all for a good scholarly debate or presentation, but there is no question that the students in particular connect more naturally and with more interest to someone who is writing in a journalistic style and crafting a public narrative. Certainly if we want our students to become good writers there are few better models than a New York Times bestseller!