Food Ethics and Social Responsibility (course description) – This dynamic course addresses issues in society regarding the commercialization of the modern farm. Students will have the opportunity to study marketing terms, their legal meaning and consumer perception, consumer protection laws and ethical responsibility, methods of raising/growing food and its social ramifications, and social health issues facing our society as a result of the modern industrialized food chain. Concepts such as sustainability, local, free range, and organic will be explored.

We recently sat down with the new instructor of the Food Ethics and Social Responsibility class, Chef Instructor Ramona White, to ask her a few questions about herself, the class, and how a chef wins the “Hottest Pepper” award from Chef’s Collaborative.
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Why are you qualified to teach the Food Ethics class?

Well, I’m not qualified to teach any class that has the word “ethics” in it.

Come on…

OK, I have a B.A. in Anthropology is the quick answer. The real answer, though, is that I have a hard time thinking of anything more important to me than local food security and supporting local agriculture and your local farmer. Maybe it’s because I like to eat and I love it here. I love the Willamette Valley and Oregon. When I first moved here in 1995, you couldn’t get local arugula. I’ve been a part of Chef’s Collaborative since about 2000 (I won the “Hottest Pepper” award in 2006, which the chef that uses the most local products in their business wins. That year, 100% of the product for my food cart was locally sourced). Because of Chef’s Collaborative, chefs and farmers began communicating and really working together. And the thing is, farmers brought things to chefs they hadn’t seen before and took a chance with things like arugula, all varieties of peppers and tomatoes and all sorts of stuff.

Where do you start with the class?

I start with “What is ‘ethics’?” “What is ‘social responsibility’? Even “What is ‘food’?” Then we start talking about food taboos and the history of agriculture.

How do you make a concept like “food ethics” something tangible and “hands-on” and not just academic?

Let me put it this way. Two out of three of the most intimate acts we do as humans are done in private, at least I hope, but eating is the one thing we do in public and socially. We take it for granted. Someone, somewhere right now is thinking “48 oz. or 36 oz. Big Gulp?” Before coming here, some of our students have never tasted a ripe tomato or a strawberry. We are going to do seasonal tastings each week. Local vs. shipped in product. Fruit, vegetables, seafood, eggs, and locally processed foods.

It’s Week One for your class. What comparison are you doing?

Well, this week’s comparative tasting is going to be on an American classic – the peanut butter and jelly sandwich, because anyone with kids pretty much has this as a staple in their house. At least it was a staple when I was growing up. I want to compare not just flavor and cost, but also the perception of an item based on marketing and packaging. The Western Family brand is touted as being “local,” but what exactly does that mean? Just because something is packaged here doesn’t necessarily make that product “local,” and there’s no legal definition for labeling your product as such. We don’t actually know the origin of the peanuts in the peanut butter. But the other sandwich will have hazelnut butter, and the hazelnuts are from Oregon. As for the bread, Franz is a local bakery, and we’re using their 12-grain bread which if you read the ingredients closely you see contains high fructose corn syrup. The other bread is NatureBake’s “Oregon Grains” bread. The preserves, same deal. The Western Family one has high fructose corn syrup and the other does not. Still, I want them to think about the fact that choosing Western Family over Jif or Skippy still means that at least they’re supporting the local economy.

What makes a cook or chef an ethical one?

The chefs I admire, like Greg Higgins and Cathy Whims, who were both instrumental in getting Chef’s Collaborative off the ground, are the ones who believe in an ethical responsibility to support local agriculture, being good to your employees, and practicing sustainability. If you say something is local, seasonal, and organic and there’s a perception that it’s going to be of higher quality, then you have an obligation to follow through on your promise. The more we buy from those farmers, the more they can support you. We owe the farmers and then have to represent them in the best light that we can.

What farms and food producers do you think are good role models for the industry?

Gales Meadow Farm grows heirloom vegetables and is a family farm, Kookoolan Farms, SuDan Farm, Fraga Farms Goat Cheese, Sweetleaf Farm — these are people I know. Of those I don’t know, I think Truitt Brothers, Organic Valley, and Southern Willamette Valley Bean and Grain Project are allawesome. The whole local food security thing is important and the bean and grain project is really designed to help with that.

You recently watched the OCI Heritage Pig Project again. What are your thoughts on the project and the documentary?

The project was an amazing project. An amazing idea. To give students the unique opportunity to be able to taste those back-to-back and having them both raised within an hour’s drive of the school, to be able to see the farms, meet the farmers, to see the cycle almost from birth to death and then understand the difference between them and the costing…it was great. There was nothing proselytizing or preachy, it’s like how I teach my class, give them the info and don’t make a judgment about what’s better and give them the opportunity to make up their own minds. It’s like parenting. To be able to do this in an education environment, I think it changed those students deeply. How those students talked about it – it was powerful for them.

What is the goal, the intended educational outcome, of the Food Ethics class?

To become better critical thinkers about what is ethical consumption, in terms of purchasing and selling. How does one make food choices? I want to help them understand that they will be making purchasing decisions and I don’t want for that to be an afterthought. I don’t want to tell them what to think, but I do want them to think about the impact of buying this milk over that milk.

Are there any subject matters that you are adding to the curriculum?

The concept of food security is something we will be talking about in class. It’s more than just hunger and knowing where your next meal comes from.

This is heavy subject matter. How do you instill hope?

Honestly, it’s a big challenge. But every book I assign has an addendum about what any single person can do to be conscientious and part of a solution. Some of the knowledge is not pretty or sexy but it’s empowering. They’re going to have a lot of difficult emotions and hopefully I will have an impact.