You are currently browsing the monthly archive for May 2012.

This Spring, a group in Concord, New Hampshire has been exploring the challenging and sometimes frustrating world of resource depletion and the many impacts of food production on climate change and the environment through participation in NWEI’s discussion course Hungry for Change: Food, Ethics and Sustainability. This is the sixth and last post from the Nourishing Words Blog, where author and course participant Eleanor Baron muses on conserving water, sustainable cheese production and the call towards a plant-based diet.


A few weeks ago, this six-week discussion course ended with readings and questions about waste, better ways of managing our food system and working toward change.

Our group, by this time, had settled into a comfortable rhythm together. Honest conversation came easily to us by now, and we’d long since established a common philosophy that “it’s all good.” Tiny, magnificent, global, local, personal or community—all efforts are good efforts. We are an accepting group.

Our eyes were opened, once again.

Mark Bittman got us thinking about how much energy goes into our food. Realizing that a one-calorie Diet Coke requires 2000 calories of energy to produce is a good reminder of why avoiding processed, packaged food is a sound choice for the environment. Eating close to the ground and choosing simple foods just has to be a good thing for our bodies as well as the planet.

Thinking about food waste, first on a global scale and then on a personal scale, embarrassed us all. How can this be, that so many people are hungry while 209 to 253 pounds of food is wasted every day in North America and Europe? That’s enough to feed us all for nearly two months. How is it that we take this so lightly? This is not about somebody else; it’s about the small and large piles of food each end every one of usthrows away. Taking actions (or re-committing to actions) like shopping wisely, making stock, composting, cooking appropriate portions—just being conscious of the issue—will move us each steps closer to zero waste living.

Just how hungry for change are we? That is the question that faced us in our last discussion. After reading and talking about the truly impressive, activist work of people like Will Allen of Growing Power, urban farmer and educator in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and other inspiring changemakers, we were asked to think about what we could do in support of a healthier food system.

We were, at first, silent on this question.

The course book suggested follow-up activities like organizing community events or starting a letter-writing campaign. Still, we were silent.

Oh, we do want change. That’s not the problem. In fact, as individuals, we’re already making important changes in our lives and in our communities. Teaching, writing, growing food, supporting good organizations, buying good food—we are living by our values. This course has prompted us to make even more changes and, perhaps, allowed us to be more confident in our beliefs and able to speak out even more. Our work together bolstered our resolve to continue those efforts, refining them over time.

I had mixed feelings, at first, about our reticence to commit to a broader goal. But then I realized that we had, in fact, created something just as important.

We’d created community.

Just a couple of weeks after our last discussion, we gathered for a celebration potluck. It was there that I realized (quite literally) the fruits of our labors. Talk flowed easily, as we savored a rich variety of homemade dishes. Discussing our creations was a big part of dinner conversation—not just the recipes, but the sourcing of ingredients, in colorful detail. We loved our food. Our commitment to the values we examined in this course was palpable. Together, we enjoyed the simple good feeling of community around shared values.

Wouldn’t you know that, just a few days later, we made plans for a second potluck?

Only good things can come of this.

I urge you to consider starting a Northwest Earth Institute course in your town. For a weekly commitment of a couple of hours of reading and a couple of hours of meeting, the benefits are huge. Besides, maybe your course will lead to a sense of expanded community for you, too. 


See the original post and other great musings on food and community at


Last month, the NWEI staff organized our own discussion group on our newest discussion course, Powering a Bright Future. We always look forward to doing new courses as a staff – even those of us who worked on developing the curriculum are surprised at what they learn, we always find a behavior to change or something we can commit to doing better, and we learn a little more about each other in the process.

For most of us, energy was something we rarely thought of beyond light bulbs or residential heating; instead, we tended to focus on solid waste reduction, sustainable food systems or reducing pollution. But energy is a part of all of these issues, as well as many others. Energy extraction, production and use affect us and our whole planet in huge ways, altering our landscapes, our climate, and our health. Every time a product is made or thrown away, energy is used. As Mike Mercer, our executive director, said, “Chances are that if you can touch it, taste it, smell it, hear it or see it, the consumption of energy was involved in its extraction, production, transportation, and use.”

Although it’s only two sessions, our participation in Powering a Bright Future opened our eyes to the complicated issues of energy production and use, and ignited ideas to work toward more sustainable energy use in our own lives. Here are some of the NWEI staff members’ comments on their experience with Powering a Bright Future:

Mike Mercer, Executive Director:

I am in this space every day and Powering a Bright Future still had a significant impact on me. The content and shared discovery were informative, daunting and inspiring. The consumption of energy is so ubiquitous in our lives and PBF gave me the motivation to dig a little deeper; beyond the actions I am already taking on the personal and advocacy levels. I’ve committed to getting a used bike trailer so Laura and I can do our food shopping by bike. I am taking more time to communicate with my elected officials and, believe it or not, I still had that pesky final incandescent bulb that is now replaced with a CFL.

Liz Zavodsky, Development Associate:

While taking this course, I found I started looking at everything differently, wondering how we were powering our earth. I was more aware of the lights I used — making sure it was out of necessity, not habit or ease. I intentionally planned my driving to make sure I did not need to add trips in the car, but rather eliminated the car all together on errands that could be done by foot or bike. I found all of this to be rewarding, as it made me more present to living and grateful for all that we have. The great thing is I have stayed with these changes after the course and will continue to make positive changes in the future.

Carolyn White, Outreach and Volunteer Coordinator:

After completing Powering a Bright Future I realized that there are still many easy (and obvious) ways that I can reduce my energy consumption. From double checking my light bulbs to getting back on my bike, I realized that regular reassessment of habits will help keep me in line with the sustainable lifestyle that I value.

Rob Nathan, Director of Outreach and Technology:

Energy is embodied within every aspect of our lives.  It’s used to make the clothes I wear, the food I eat, and power the devices I use on a daily basis.  Promoting energy sustainability means that as an individual I need to think beyond the light bulb, and not only promote renewable energy initiatives in my community, but also reduce my consumptive patterns, reuse as much material as possible, consider the embodied energy used to produce my food, and continue minimizing my use of fossil fuels.

My biggest ‘take-home’ from our discussion course is the dilemma that bottled water brings to the discussion. Lester Brown points out that bottling 28 billion plastic bottles each year in the United States requires the equivalent of 17 million barrels of oil. I had given up bottled water years ago, as I had already recognized it as a marketing ploy. But what about all the other ‘to-go’ beverages I was purchasing, like my vitamin waters, and coconut waters, and kombuchas? Those are just as abundant in the stores and must require the same amount of energy consumption to produce.  I am now making a commitment to eliminate ‘to-go’ beverages from my life.  It will allow me to voluntarily simplify my consumptive patterns, reduce my contribution to energy consumption, and bring down my sugar intake. It is a win-win all around.

Lacy Cagle, Director of Curriculum and Community Engagement: 

Through Powering a Bright Future,  I learned about how much is already possible. It was wonderful to read about the tools we already have to greatly increase our energy efficiency,  reduce our dependence on fossil fuel, reduce pollution and greenhouse gases, create jobs, and invest in local communities. Because of the course, I have committed to choosing the wind energy option from our electric company, finding out more about Portland’s Climate Plan, and reducing/eliminating packaging from our grocery purchases. And I’m very, very excited about these changes!

If you’ve taken the course, what have you learned or changed because of participating in Powering a Bright Future? If you haven’t yet, please consider organizing a Powering a Bright Future course with your friends and family, co-workers, students, or classmates. You can find out more information here.

This week we are excited to share a guest blog post from NWEI course participant and community organizer Jim Freese, who has been an instrumental part in a Bothell, WA based initiative to save the North Creek Forest. Read on to hear more about one group’s inspiring efforts at protecting one’s place…

How can we live so close to something and not see it?

In February 2007 our neighborhood gathered to watch Al Gore’s video An Inconvenient Truth. I watched with hedging concern. Yes, we were taking steps to live with less impact. But how in the world could we make a real difference? A friend and neighbor who brought us the film, Dave Frazer, suggested we try a course designed for communities and neighborhoods. It looked like a great excuse for potlucks! We got hooked. Over the next 3-1/2 years we journeyed together through the discoveries found in the NWEI courses.  New faces came and went but 8 or so people stayed through the whole series (of NWEI discussion courses). We changed shampoos and lifestyles. We started with the course, Discovering a Sense of Place, and everything that came after that continued to bring our dialog back to our homes, families, neighborhood and community.

 This is not to say our ideas always aligned. I admit to fantasizing about relocating everyone in our living room to a community of our own. Fortunately those with greater sensibilities reminded me the real changes can, and should, be made right here… right where we were.  And right where we were turned out to be in close proximity to a magnificent 64-acre urban forest.

One neighborhood group fought off development of the forest for 10 years and successfully agitated for a purchase grant, but didn’t have the required matching funds to use it. Many of us had helped out in small ways but it became a delaying effort and would have been ultimately fruitless had the housing market not crashed. But it did, and we saw an opportunity.

We founded a new organization called Friends of North Creek Forest. FNCF agreed that any conservation solution must be a victory for our whole community including landowners, the city and our obvious but overlooked allies: educators and tribal interests. By taking the time to reach out to each potential partner we began to see their concerns and address them.

 The city, like most, is on a very tight budget. Our success would mean increasing the city’s park and open space lands by 60% when there was not enough money to “care and feed” the current inventory. We saw a solution must include an organization capable of ongoing forest stewardship. Landowners were feeling “beat up” after their initial hopes were dashed, first by the original delays, then by the market crash. Landowners needed to be understood, respected and compensated. Some elected officials openly stated early efforts looked a lot like NIMBY actions (Not in my Back Yard) and were reluctant to embrace conservation that would only affect a neighborhood. Mindful now of a sense of place we focused on ways conservation might benefit the whole community. We already knew salmon depended in part upon this mile long water filter. We already knew how much carbon was being sequestered. Those arguments could fit almost any piece of land in the watershed varying only by degree of impact. They alone had not been very persuasive in the past. We needed a fresh look… and then it hit us.

There are 9000 students, from Kindergarten through PhD, within walking distance of North Creek Forest. We saw an opportunity, now become mantra, that the forest might become a 64-acre outdoor laboratory to encourage science, art and literature. How myopic we had been without a sense of place and the needs of our community. What happened over the next 14 months strikes wonder among a lot of people, especially us.

Our Mission became: To protect and improve the ecological function of North Creek Forest through stewardship, education and conservation in perpetuity. We put together a web site, case statement, fact sheet and printed cards. We built a portable display for public gatherings and bought a banner. We got endorsements from the Tulalip Indian Tribes, the University of Washington Bothell, the local school district, scientists, educators, artists, authors, elected leaders, students, neighbors… hundreds of them… anyone with an imagination for a perfect addition to our community and our value for the local ecology. We recruited a to-die-for Board of Directors. We built each relationship face-to-face whenever possible.

FNCF sought permission to apply for grants in the city’s name. This is a far cry from demanding they do it for us. And it landed two grants only six days apart which enabled the first 35-acre purchase. We won a third grant that will enable an additional 6-acre acquisition this summer. We now have willing sellers for the remainder of the forest and are working with the city to get the final grants for this purchase.

We contracted with the UW Restoration Ecology Network Capstone Project. College seniors have designed and implemented a forest recovery plan, removing invasive species and planting layers of native vegetation. Community volunteers assist them. We are also directing 3 interns from the local Community College to do a botanical survey, a UW graduate student intern in Landscape Architecture and a Work-Study student. Our model for stewardship and education is taking shape.

FNCF holds house meetings (guess where we got that idea) to engage the community, listen to their ideas, present a one hour show and line up the deeper level of community commitment we need to make long term stewardship successful. We have made front page coverage across Puget Sound newspapers and even across a couple of mountain ranges, been written about in conservation publications and even had our 3 minutes of television coverage. A gigantic law firm put together our non-profit application for free. Now a big foundation called us and we have a 2-hour meeting scheduled this month.

So that’s where we are at the end of 14 months. All of our work was built upon a foundation established when we spent 3-1/2 years together with NWEI courses. For me, it took that long to let go of the things beyond my reach and focus on my own community. We all had that experience, many more quickly than I. Those little suggestions at the end of each course chapter paid off. We did talk to our grocer to see where our produce came from. We did interview a local cabinetmaker who grew up in this city, and whose parents never shopped for food except flour, sugar and salt until 1960. We learned about a deep and rich opportunity to offer ourselves in service within walking distance of home. We found our place.

Check to see it. When you do look at the Endorsement Page. Notice the first entry. It is the Northwest Earth Institute. For obvious reasons it will always remain at the top of the list. If you want to endorse our conservation goal you can. This is a little town but it’s in a big world and you are part of it.

Go forth (not far) and make a difference!

Thanks to the NWEI group that got this initiative started, and to the Friends of North Creek Forest for sharing this inspiring example of community transformation and protection of one’s place. May we all learn from your example!



This Spring, a group in Concord, New Hampshire has been exploring the challenging and sometimes frustrating world of resource depletion and the many impacts of food production on climate change and the environment through participation in NWEI’s discussion course Hungry for Change: Food, Ethics and Sustainability. This is the fifth post from the Nourishing Words Blog, where author and course participant Eleanor Baron muses on conserving water, sustainable cheese production and the call towards a plant-based diet.


The people drawn to participate in our Hungry for Change group (perhaps predictably) are environmentally conscious by nature and are concerned about tending this planet for future generations. We come to the discussion knowing at least the basics and with a personal commitment to live our lives in alignment with the our values. Many of us do our best to stay up to date on emerging topics like climate change, soil depletion and the exploitation of the earth’s greatest aquifers.

Is that enough?

Once again, as we talked, the answer emerged. It’s important to keep learning and take action.

As an example, we talked about how we use water in our lives. We each monitor our usage, whether motivated by a city water bill, the level of water in our well or a general sense that water is a precious gift that should be honored as such. We don’t buy bottled water, we mulch our gardens well and take short showers. We’d each argue that we use less water than our neighbors.

But as we talked, we discovered more that we could do to conserve water. By the end of our discussion, we were considering setting up rain barrels other finding ways of catching water before it heads either down the drain or down the driveway. We talked about catching wasted water in the shower (before the water gets hot, that is) and reusing it to flush the toilet. We talked about using gray water to water plants or for some other purpose. One participant articulated her practice as “never letting water go down the drain until it’s done a job.” Our eyes were opened to a world of tiny practices that together would surely save a meaningful amount of water…

To follow this blog and to read more of this post, click here.

This week brings a fourth post from Eleanor Baron’s Nourishing Words Blog out of Concord, New Hampshire, where a group is participating in NWEI’s Hungry for Change: Food, Ethics and Sustainability discussion course. This post addresses Session Four of the course: Just Food, where articles deal with food’s complicated world of ethics and justice.

It’s easy to turn our attention away from the disturbing, messy and sometimes horrific side of food production. We protect ourselves from this perspective; the industry protects us as well. Indeed, it would seem to be in everybody’s best interest not to talk about these things. We wouldn’t upset one another, and we wouldn’t have to face difficult decisions.

How animals are treated, the working conditions of many agricultural workers, forced labor and paltry wages are all topics not often covered by mainstream media. Due to powerful lobbies, even our politicians seem not to care. The fact that those winter tomatoes northerners so innocently buy at the grocery store are possibly the product of human slavery in Florida—that’s information that would shock most people, if they took the initiative to dig a little deeper into the story of their food.

This course does just that. It urges us to dig deeper, consider more thoughtfully and discuss more actively the stories our food can tell us. More importantly, it asks us each week what we are going to do to change those stories. Northwest Earth Institute courses are all about personal action. Reading is the first step on the path to action; discussion is the critical second step. Hearing my thoughts spoken out loud, and considering the thoughts of others, makes me realize each week how important it is to do something. Whether it’s the simple personal act of not buying something, now that we know its story, or a more public act like picketing or taking political action—it’s all important work.

Each of us has power to create change. (*Please click here to follow Eleanor’s blog and to read the full post).


This week brings another update from Eleanor Baron’s Nourishing Words Blog out of Concord, New Hampshire, where a group is participating in NWEI’s  Hungry for Change: Food, Ethics and Sustainability discussion course. This post offers up reflections from Session Three: A Healthy Appetite. To follow Eleanor’s blog, click here.

Each week, we begin with an “opener,” offered by one person who shares a thought, a memory, an object—anything relating to our work in this course. It gets us thinking and talking. Beth, as an opener for Week 3, brought a bag full of packaged foods from her home cupboards, most of which were labeled “organic.” What we passed around surprised us all. One by one, we read the labels, revealing marketing claims, additives, chemicals and trans fats lurking in the fine print. The exercise left us all feeling a bit humbled, wondering what’s in the shadows of our cabinets and cupboards at home.

Our readings had primed us for talking about how our food choices impact our health and how packaging and marketing affects our decisions. Already an arguably conscious group regarding food choices, one by one we realized our weak points—what could stand closer scrutiny. We talked about our go-to comfort foods, the foods we eat without much thought at all and foods we’ve long ago given up. We talked about how we make food choices in the first place.

It’s easy, in this world of food awareness, to feel a bit smug in our choices. After all, we’re gardening organically, shopping at farmers markets, joining CSAs and striving to fill the cupboard with unpackaged, real, whole foods. With a few exceptions that we’re prepared to chock up as minor, we’re doing the right things.

But why? … (*To read Eleanor’s full post, click here).

To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work. ~ Mary Oliver

It is that time of year again! Last year we encouraged the NWEI community to participate in the 350 Home & Garden Challenge, which saw over 1500 amazing actions registered in 226 cities and 37 states on a single weekend! This year it is called the ‘Transition Challenge’ and it encompasses the entire month of May. The focus is the same: during the month of May 2012, thousands of landscapes and homes will be transformed, retrofitted and revitalized as part of the Transition Challenge. Participants will grow food, conserve water, save energy and build community. It’s time for action, rooted in a shared vision and voice.

This month, thousands will take to the streets, the garden, schoolyard, home, apartment and city hall to take actions big and small. Please join!

For more information and to sign up, as well as for a host of ideas of how to get started: click here. You can choose actions related to growing food, saving water, conserving energy and building community.

We’ve been following author Eleanor Baron and her blog Nourishing Words out of Concord, New Hampshire, where a group is currently participating in NWEI’s Hungry for Change: Food, Ethics and Sustainability, which explores food policy issues and the effect of global politics on food systems. Read below for musings on Session Two: Politics of the Plate. To prepare for the discussion, the group read articles by Lester Brown, Danielle Nierenberg, Mara Schechter, Marion Nestle, Daniel Pauly, Sandra Steingraber, Guari Jain, Eric Holt-Gimenez and Lucy Bernardini. To follow this blog and read the full post, click here

A few paragraphs into this week’s readings, I realized how little consideration I give to global issues related to food. My personal focus is just that—personal. My interests are close to home and I choose grassroots activities that will make a difference here. I’m conceptually aware of broader, global issues, but I’m a little embarrassed to admit that they don’t touch my heart very often. The shifting sands of global politics and economics are not familiar territory to me.

I was not alone, I discovered. Most of us found these articles difficult to read: a bit tedious. We spoke of not feeling a personal connection to big issues like food insecurity on a national level. We were loosely aware of the resulting “land grabs” by wealthy countries, which buy up agricultural land in poorer countries to ensure their own country’s food far into the future. As a group, we realized our lack of knowledge of our country’s farm subsidies and how they relate to the real cost of food. We dived into the dizzying world of seafood, puzzling over what defines sustainable, and who defines it.

I was not alone in admitting that I look for simple rules; when a topic (like sustainable seafood) becomes overwhelmingly complex, I bow out. Skip the seafood. The more complex the topic, the more I look for the bottom line.

I was not alone in admitting that I look for simple rules; when a topic (like sustainable seafood) becomes overwhelmingly complex, I bow out. Skip the seafood. The more complex the topic, the more I look for the bottom line…(To read the rest of Eleanor’s post, click here).

“Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.” ~Wendell Berry

For those of you following NWEI’s blog, you may recall that local food is a buzzing topic in Oregon and Washington’s Columbia River Gorge region, where nine groups recently met to participate in NWEI’s Menu for the Future discussion course. This week we have an update from Gorge News:

Starting the week of Feb. 20, nine different groups of eight to 10 people met once a week for six weeks in towns across the gorge including Goldendale, The Dalles, Hood River, White Salmon-Bingen, Stevenson-Cascade Locks and Mosier.

On Sunday, April 29, at 5:30 p.m., the Mosier group (hosted) one big community potluck at the Mosier Grange with all 80 participants from each of the individual groups.

Using the Menu for the Future discussion course book (created by the Northwest Earth Institute), these groups of diverse citizens explored the confusing number of food choices and contradicting information around health, fair trade, industrial agriculture, organics, family farms, sustainable food systems, GMOs and other juicy topics related to the food system.

The Mosier group of around 10 volunteers facilitated and organized the Let’s Talk Food Discussion groups because of their enthusiasm for the Menu For the Future curriculum. After the Mosier Group participated in the discussion course last winter, they were inspired to take action. They started their own Farmers’ Market in downtown Mosier last summer and have now organized the food discussion groups this spring with hopes that other communities will also become active in their food system.

A number of local establishments helped by providing a place for the groups to meet including 10 Speed East in Mosier, JoLinda’s in Stevenson, Solstice Pizza in Bingen, Presbyterian Church in The Dalles, Grow Organic and Dog River Coffee in Hood River.

Scholarships for the course books were available from Gorge Grown Food Network, which made it possible for anyone to participate regardless of income.

For more information call Emily Reed of the Mosier group at 503-360-3532.

Order NWEI Books

Find us on Facebook

Follow us on Twitter

Make a Donation to NWEI

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.


Twitter Updates

Error: Twitter did not respond. Please wait a few minutes and refresh this page.