Challenge your students to think about how the food we eat travels from its source to our plates. Many students don’t look past the grocery aisle or restaurant when they think about where food comes from, if they think about it at all. In this activity, students are challenged to discover the origins of their food and investigate the extensive transportation systems that facilitate food delivery to consumers around the world. Students also examine the pros and cons of consuming both locally grown or harvested foods and non-local foods, while exploring issues of environmental sustainability.
- Think about how food is produced and how it gets to your community
- Comprehend the role of economics in the raising, harvesting, shipping and selling of food; understand how your choices as a consumer affect these markets
- Understand how human actions can impact the environment
- Utilize an array of mathematical concepts in a "real-life" context
National Standards Addressed
- Understand that effective decision-making requires comparing the costs of alternatives with the benefits and that most choices involve doing a little more or a little less of something; few choices are all-or-nothing decisions
- Understand that markets exist when buyers and sellers interact. This interaction determines the allocation of goods and resources
- Compare and contrast regions, e.g., climate and types of food that can be cultivated in a particular location
- Use mathematical models to represent and understand quantitative relationships
- Solve problems that arise inside and outside of mathematical contexts
- Communicate mathematical concepts and ideas to others clearly and coherently
- Discuss the types of food students commonly eat. Ask them if they know where those foods come from. Bring up the many facets of food origins. Which animal or plant does each food come from? Where and how is the food harvested or grown?
- Choose a common food, such as table grapes, and ask the students to track its source. The source of grapes changes, depending on the season. Between July and December, most table grapes sold in North America come from California. However, between January and June, most table grapes come from Chile. On a world map, label your school’s location and the food’s points of origin (for grapes, use Watsonville, California and Santiago, Chile).
- Explain that transporting foods such as grapes to your community is a complex process and that each step adds hidden costs (the burning of petroleum to transport the food, the creation of air pollutants, etc). Compile a list of different types of transports involved in moving food from its point of origin to your community (air, rail, truck). Find out the approximate mileage the food travels with each type of transport. Explain that the different types of transport require different amounts of petroleum and other resources.
- Locally grown foods benefit both people and the environment in many ways, but consuming foods from distant places can have its advantages. Help students weigh the pros and cons of both locally and non-locally grown foods. Ask students to consider in which instances the pros might outweigh the cons, and vice versa, and when this would affect their choices as consumers.
- Discuss the important role of consumers. As consumers, your preferences and choices can influence the items that stores and restaurants carry. If customers demand certain imported items, retail outlets will try to carry those items. If customers request locally grown items, stores and restaurants will try to fulfill those requests as well. Being an informed consumer is important, not only because it helps you make good choices for your own nutritional needs, but also because your shopping and consumption patterns are one of the strongest ways to voice your opinions and put your values into action.
Challenge students to continuously think about how the food they consume reaches their plates. Does thinking about the source of their food make them want to change any of their eating habits? Following are some ways for students to take what they have learned and put it into concrete action:
Educate the Public
Have students develop educational materials about what they have learned regarding geographical sources of food and transportation to the consumer. Some ideas include:
- Create a flow chart or a set of posters depicting the different stages of transportation used to get the food to your plate. You can also include information about the mileage logged during the different stages of transportation.
- Create a “travel diary” for the food. Have students write the diary in a first-person narrative in the voice of the food, e.g., a bunch of grapes. Have the food explain where it is grown and describe its journey from the farm to someone’s table.
- Encourage students to raise questions about the sources of their food. For example, in restaurants they can ask whether any of the ingredients are locally produced. In grocery stores, they can inquire if the stores carry local foods and discover the reasoning behind those decisions.
Challenge to Eat Locally
- How realistic is it to eat only locally grown foods? Have students attempt to consume as high a percentage of local foods as possible in their meals for a set period of time. Brainstorm places to find locally grown and produced food, e.g., farmer’s markets, consumer-supported agriculture (CSA) groups or grocery stores with labels/displays indicating a locally grown food. Have students keep track of the types of foods they can easily find local sources for and what foods they cannot.
- Have students keep track of any difference in cost. If there is a high cost differential, ask the retail location the reasons for it.
- Finally, ask students to consider whether or not they will change their eating or shopping habits based on the information they have unearthed.
Host a Local Lunch Day
- Make arrangements with local farmers or producers to supply locally produced food for one school day or a special event. Your students can host the event and create displays that explain how the food was produced and transported to the site. The displays can compare the locally produced and non-locally produced versions of a food item and record the effects transportation has on human nutrition and the environment.
- Older students can do most of the organizing themselves and include more complex themes like the “economic effects of buying locally produced foods.”
Grow Your Own
A school or community garden offers so much more than fresh fruits and vegetables. It gives students a chance to connect with the Earth and to understand the importance and intricacy of soil as a resource. It also provides the excitement of growing and caring for living things. Tips on creating such a garden can be found at www.communitygarden.org.
Create a Farm to School Program
By pairing schools with local farms, Farm to School programs seek to improve student nutrition and nutrition education while supporting small farmers. Creating a Farm to School program requires a significant amount of commitment and, if it is to be student led, is better suited for secondary school students. Information regarding Farm to School can be found at www.farmtoschool.org.
Creating a sustainable development cookbook is a fun way to raise awareness and funds. Be sure to choose a theme for your project. For example, students could create a cookbook highlighting locally produced foods in different seasons. They could include information about sustainable development or food transportation systems. Another idea is to create a general resource guide with directions on how tell if food is locally produced. Students can sell the cookbooks or guides and donate the proceeds to Heifer International.
Fundraising also provides a great opportunity to apply mathematical skills to real situations. Have students use their mathematical skills to:
- Estimate costs of creating a cookbook or guide
- Determine different price points at which they might sell the book, either to make different levels of profit or to recoup costs
- Create a graphic display of the money the class hopes to raise or how many books the class hopes to distribute. Fill in the graphic display as you progress through the fundraiser