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Menu for the future

A treat to entice so many children, chocolate can be a culprit in child labor abroad.

Organic blueberries from across the continent leave an environmental footprint that belies their health benefits.

Reducing the far-reaching social and environmental costs of these and other common foods, says Tamara Houston, isn’t a tough sell in the Rogue Valley.

“People here are really into what they eat.”

Passionate eaters of all persuasions can join Houston April 6 through May 11 in Ashland for weekly discussions of food and sustainability. “Menu for the Future” is a course constructed by Northwest Earth Institute and offered by Ashland Food Co-op to illustrate the effects of everyday eating habits on both the environment and human experience across the globe. The $28 fee covers the class workbook.

“There’s no right answer,” says Houston. “It’s a way to get people thinking.”

A philosophical look at food-system sustainability was well-received last summer, says Houston. While NWEI’s “Hunger for Change” puts food into an ethical, macroscopic framework, “Menu for the Future” is a practical guide to making conscientious consumer choices, says Houston.

“They help you to prioritize your choices financially,” she says. “There are things that you learn that you don’t even expect to learn.”

In Houston’s case, chocolate and blueberries represented major shifts in her thinking. She says she was surprised in both instances to learn that some of her grocery-buying habits conflicted with her values. NWEI courses illuminate issues in a variety of formats, says Houston, from works of fiction to scientific journals to opinion pieces published in newspapers and magazines. Preparing for each hour-long discussion group entails several pages of reading, she adds.

“It’s a real low commitment,” says Houston. “You get out of it what you put into it.”

Houston’s first brush with NWEI came at Portland’s Reed College, where she worked a decade ago in administration. Her lunch hours offered opportunities to meet and talk with co-workers facilitated by NWEI curriculum. The Portland-based nonprofit organization provides 10 discussion course books for use in schools, the workplace, places of faith and worship, as well as throughout the community.

“It was just a way to get to know my colleagues better,” says Houston. “You get to hear the opinion of someone else and consider it.”

When Houston, 39, moved to Ashland two years ago to work as a physician’s assistant, she gravitated toward NWEI discussions as a way of delving into her new community. Jackson County residents, she says, have proven their commitment to sustainable agriculture since banning the cultivation of genetically modified crops.

“I really think the topic is apropos for where we live.”

Topics within the course material include: “The Folly of Big Agriculture,” “Industrial Meat and Antibiotic Use,” “Farming in the Time of Climate Catastrophe” and “Overfishing.” NWEI also sets the table with “The Pleasures of Eating” and “Traditional Foods Remind Us of Who We Are.”

Among NWEI’s solution-oriented articles are: “Lawn to Farm,” “Making Informed Food Choices,” “Slow Eating” and “Community Kitchens.” Participants are asked to rate each session and weigh in on each article’s relevance.

“Most people’s comments are so positive,” says Houston.

Across-the-board demographics characterized previous NWEI groups locally, says Houston. Ranging in age from 20s to 70s, past participants worked on farms and in small businesses, as caregivers and yoga instructors, to name a few, she adds. Twelve people can register for “Menu for the Future,” held Wednesday evenings in the Co-op Community Classroom.

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.

A discussion series at Ashland Food Co-op will focus on the environmental and human costs of our food choices. 123RF.com