From Farm to Table
It's important for students to understand where our food comes from and the environmental implications of agriculture.
By Lynsey Peterson
When you ask most students where their food comes from, they will generally tell you that it comes from the grocery store or their favorite fast food restaurant. While this may be partially true, it is only a small part of our food chain. To get students thinking ecologically about their food, they need to understand the many links in the journey from the farm to their table.
Generations ago, our food chain was much less complex. A much greater percentage of the population worked in farming. As agriculture has become more industrialized, fewer farmers are needed to produce more food than ever. This is one reason that many students today do not really understand the path that food takes before it reaches them. In addition, the industrialization of food production has also made that path longer. Food is grown in vast monocultures, more energy and chemicals are used in its production, and it travels farther than ever before to reach our plates. While this industrialization has made food cheaper and more plentiful to the modern consumer, it has also made agriculture more damaging to the environment.
When I teach students about ecology and environmental science, agriculture is one of the major units of study. Because we cannot live without food, its production is an essential part of our history and our impact on the environment. I begin with a brief history of humans and food. We discuss hunter-gatherers and the Agricultural Revolution. Then we discuss the Green Revolution and its effects. At this point, I usually have students choose a crop to research. They find out how it is grown, the difficulties farmers might face growing it, and how it ends up in their supermarkets.
Students also research the path that their most recent meal took to reach them. I have them write down the three major ingredients of a recent meal. Then, I provide them with websites to help them find out what it takes to grow the ingredient, then process, package, and ship it. I also have them research some of the issues in modern agriculture, such as the use of chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and genetically modified organisms.
One of the most entertaining activities that we do during this unit is investigate the ingredients in processed foods. I collect food packages on my own, or by having students bring them in. Then, I cut the ingredients list off of the package and glue it to an index card. I number the index cards and write a key for myself. After we read about food preservatives, I pass the cards out to groups of students. They write down the first three major ingredients and any preservatives used in the product. They also write down information about the preservatives from a reference that I give them. Finally, they give an educated guess as to what the food product is. It is fun to watch students guess and I give them hints that help them. This activity really impresses upon my students that there are many chemical ingredients in some of the foods that they eat.
Students also love an excuse to bring food to school, so I will often indulge them during this unit. I allow them to bring a food to share with the class, but they must tell us the path that the food took from the farm to the class that day. I don’t require organic, locally-grown, or minimally processed foods for this activity, but I do encourage them. Students find that the more processed their food is, the more difficult it is to research and describe where the food came from.
I hope that this unit is one that leaves an impression on my students. I want to teach life skills in addition to facts. Being an informed consumer and advocate for one’s own health is important, especially as society exerts pressures against these things. The lessons below will give you even more inspiration for shedding light on the path of food from the farm to the table.
Food and Agriculture Lesson Plans:
Students identify relevant agricultural practices, emerging technologies relevant to food production, the concept of integrated pest management, and the advantages and problems related to organic farming.
Students examine the past, present and future trends of agriculture, current issues concerning agriculture, and compare a variety of management practices. They explain the correlation between agricultural practices and environmental effects.
Students consider their own diets and examine an op-ed article about organically produced foods. They research alternatives to various foods for the creation of a supermarket and reflect on their own diets after keeping a food journal.
Students investigate the different types of genetically modified crop plants and the benefits and risks of such plants. The agricultural needs in developing nations are also examined in this lesson.
Students read statements representing different points of view on genetically modified food. They identify the "facts" and "opinions" in each statement, and then briefly summarize the issue of Genetically Modified Food in a short paragraph. Pupils research and create an essay expressing their own opinion about genetically modified food, using citations from these statements and other sources to support their conclusions.