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Food for thought: St. Louis Park woman uses parties to teach on diet, climate change

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Ramen dough is laid across the counter.
Ramen noodle dough is laid on the kitchen counter of Michelle Courtright's St. Louis Park home before being served to guests as part of a monthlong series of vegetarian dinner parties she's hosting with her husband to raise awareness of how food choices affect climate change.
Evan Frost | MPR News

One bite at a time, Michelle Courtright is trying to educate people about how their diets impact our changing climate. 

Every night in February, the St. Louis Park woman is hosting vegetarian dinner parties to share the message that animals raised for food in Minnesota put more greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere than passenger cars. 

On the first night of the month — "Veguary" she calls it — Courtright's kitchen was buzzing as she whipped up a Mediterranean-inspired meal.

"Roasted eggplant, roasted zucchini and squash, I put some lentils in there ... and then I have a little soup here, which is a lemon broth with a little bit of rice," she explained to a visitor as a dozen people sipped wine and chatted around her.

Friends and family helped Courtright kick off the first night, and she's inviting people to sign up online to attend one of the other meals. 

Michelle Courtright in her St. Louis Park home.
Michelle Courtright laughs with guests of her second vegetarian dinner party of the month as her husband Bazak Sharon prepares a dinner of ramen noodles in their St. Louis Park home.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Courtright is a vegetarian, but she knows she won't convert everyone. She's just trying to build awareness.

"I don't feel like a lot of people know about climate change and a vegetarian diet, or how a vegetarian diet affects greenhouse gases," she said. "But food brings up the conversation and it gets people together and they start to activate, so that's really the goal here."

The international scientific panel analyzing global warming says emissions must be brought down to zero by the end of this century to avoid the worst effects. The reductions won't happen with renewable energy and electric vehicles alone. 

But Courtright acknowledges that reducing energy use is a lot easier for most people than changing their diets. 

"Culturally, you grow up and your father or mother teaches you how to cook, and you say, 'OK, here's my meat, here's my vegetable, here's my starch,' " she noted. She hopes to inspire people to be more creative with their meals.

Bazak Sharon cuts ramen dough.
Bazak Sharon cuts ramen dough into noodles inside the home he shares with wife Michelle Courtright. "It's so easy, just egg and flour," Sharon said of ramen noodles.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The guests include Charlie Rounds of St. Louis Park. He became a vegetarian 30 years ago for health reasons. 

Since then, Rounds said he has learned a lot about the environmental impact of animal agriculture through travel. Many people don't understand you can live just fine on little to no meat, he said, like when he lived in Cameroon in West Africa.  

"You got a piece of meat about this big, 2 inches by 2 inches, every day. That was it," he said. "And people go, 'Oh my God, you're a vegetarian, where do you get your protein?' " 

Amanda Brinkman isn't a vegetarian, but she said Courtright's message is getting her to think, especially when it comes to cows. 

Cows' digestive systems produce methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. On top of that, a lot of other emissions result from clearing forests and growing the crops to feed the cows. Brinkman said most people don't think of all that when they order a burger.

"I love that she's bringing activism to us in such a friendly way," Brinkman said. "She's opened her home, she's teaching us how to cook this kind of a cuisine, so I think people will pay more attention to it, and I certainly will." 

For those concerned about the environment and climate change, the focus has largely been on energy use. And for good reason: In Minnesota, electricity generation is by far the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions — about 30 percent of the pie. 

Ramen noodles with peas.
Ramen noodles with peas were served as the entree for the second night of a month of vegetarian dinner parties hosted by Michelle Courtright and her husband Bazak Sharon.
Evan Frost | MPR News

State agency officials say all forms of transportation account for 25 percent of emissions, while agriculture is at 18 percent — about a third of that coming from animals. 

"We're really big on conservation in our home. We try to limit our use of water, of electricity," said dinner guest Jayson Wold of St. Louis Park. 

But Wold said meat has not been part of the equation for him. He might cut back some now that he's aware, but he's definitely not ready to give it up. 

"I'm a meat eater. I love burgers, I love steak, I love chicken, I love fish," he said. But his month, Wold says he's committed to eating less of it. "If I can go meat-free for at least half of my meals, I think I'm headed in the right direction." 

Of course, it's going to take a lot more than a group of Minnesota vegetarians to bring down the state's emissions from agriculture. That's because most of the pork, beef and poultry raised in the state is shipped elsewhere. Even as far away as China, Japan and Mexico.

Correction (Feb. 3, 2017): An earlier version of this story misspelled Jayson Wold's name.