Dominic Barrett ’06: tackling hunger from the ground up
Dominic Barrett ’06 is growing more than food at Shalom Farms in Virginia: He’s tackling hunger from the ground up.
Dominic Barrett ’06 might not be an expert farmer, but that hasn’t deterred him from growing food—and growing lots of it. That food ends up in thousands of homes, but it all comes from one place: Shalom Farms, where Barrett is the executive director.
The sustainable farm sits on six acres in Goochland, Va., and serves a momentous purpose in its surrounding communities. “We focus on increasing access to healthy food in low-income communities in Richmond, as well as increasing the support to make that access useful and meaningful,” Barrett says.
The farm was founded in 2008 and Barrett, who graduated from Elon in 2006 with degrees in broadcast journalism and nonviolence studies, joined the team two years later as its program director.
A self-proclaimed “desk farmer,” his job allows him to move between various roles and observe the company’s mission from different angles.
Among many duties, he leads programs that teach countless people about agriculture and organizes thousands of volunteers and visitors. The goal is to offer all who visit the farm hands-on education and experience in sustainable food production so they are active participants in bettering the area’s food system. In addition, he works with community leaders on hunger issues and in the communities Shalom Farms serves.
“It’s important to me to be able to work on the ground in the community, looking at grassroots solutions, overcoming barriers and working with residents who are committed every day to finding a way to overcome these challenges and barriers, but also to get to work on the policy end of stuff, too,” he says.
The farm grows potatoes and vegetables and raises chickens destined for Richmond’s food deserts. Barrett tries to steer clear of that term because he believes it has a negative connotation that adds stigma to the neighborhoods that are often already marginalized. Healthy food gaps, as he prefers to call them, are low-income areas that provide little access to healthy and fresh food.
Barrett credits his staff, including farm manager Steve Miles, who oversees farm operations, for their success so far. Last year, the farm grew and distributed 95,000 pounds of food—roughly 250,000 servings—to those areas with the help of volunteer groups. The food is split up into roughly three parts, with a third going to FeedMore, one of the largest food banks in the mid-Atlantic; a third going to Shalom Farms’ partners in the community; and the remaining third distributed in the farm’s programs. Those programs include the Youth-Run Farm Stand, which allows kids to provide direct food access in their neighborhoods, and the Prescription Produce Plan, which includes weekly deliveries of fresh produce from the farm and education about overcoming preventable illnesses associated with unhealthy diets.
Even before joining Shalom Farms, Barrett has focused on enhancing the community and those around him. After graduating from Elon with a broadcast communications degree, he did a year in the AmeriCorps working in Washington, D.C., with Ashoka, one of the largest global social entrepreneurship organizations.
Fascinated by the concept of social entrepreneurship, Barrett decided to learn as much as he could about the hybrid models that take the best of nonprofit work and ethics and the best of full-profit business models and strategy to create enterprises for social good.
Not long after that, he took up a position with the Palmetto Project in Charleston, S.C., where he ran four programs, chaired South Carolina’s only immunization coalition and helped get uniquely designed laptops to elementary schools in rural and impoverished parts of the state. He left that job with a wide set of skills he was able to perfect at Shalom Farms.
While Barrett works mostly behind the scenes, his work has not gone unnoticed. He was named one of Bread of the World’s 75 Hunger Justice Leaders Under 30 in 2010 and one of Elon’s Top 10 Under 10 Alumni in 2012.
Rob Kiser, one of Barrett’s close friends and fellow Class of 2006 alumnus, says Barrett has always been an outgoing, bold and altruistic person. “It’s very clear that if he thinks you have the means, you should be doing what you can to help other people,” Kiser says. “It’s difficult to be around someone like that and not be more confident in yourself.” It’s an unintended effect from a man whose main purpose is to help those around him.
Besides his work at the farm, Barrett is also active in the Richmond community. He volunteers monthly with the YWCA’s domestic violence and sexual assault response program and is a Big Brother in the local Big Brothers Big Sisters program. He has also provided leadership on several local and regional food access initiatives, including being a director of the Virginia Food System Council. He says his involvement in food policy has been a learning experience and he finds joy in it. “It provides an opportunity for me to be a voice for the marginalized communities that really need to be heard at those tables,” he says.
Looking forward, Barrett has his eyes set on the future of Shalom Farms. The organization is aiming to expand farming operations in the coming years, which involves another farm space, and finding ways to make sure its programs are more competent and accessible for more people. His motivation to continue bettering Shalom Farms comes from recognizing that his neighborhood, family and community will be stronger and more enjoyable if all of its parts are healthy.
“Whether we acknowledge it or not, we are all part of this moving, breathing, living thing we have going on here,” he says. “I’m going to be better off if the other parts of me, so to speak, are well off.”
By Stephanie Butzer ’14