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Where Does Our Food Come From?

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Originally appears in the Fall 2017 issue

Climate change is an issue that can easily overwhelm young learners. The following lesson uses the lens of food to help learners consider the multifaceted nature of the problem and its solutions. Few students understand the complex system of global food production, or that agriculture contributes one third of current CO2 emissions. This lesson sparks investigations into the social, economic, and scientific factors that influence how food is grown and produced, and invites learners to consider how their food choices can impact global climate change.

Life in North America does a good job of distancing us from the reality of food systems. By investigating the source of their food, students begin an individualized journey into global health and personal wellness. It is an area where they can become empowered to effect change, given that they exert quite a bit of control over what they eat.

Inspired by the Aquatic Project WILD lesson called Water We Eating?,1 the following activity is a cross-disciplinary STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) lesson that can address standards within multiple subject areas. It is designed to help learners recognize how the food decisions each of us makes ultimately impacts global climate change. In this lesson, learners are introduced to large- and small-scale food production, the politics around “truth” in advertising and food labelling, the political forces driving food production, and the sometimes contradictory information about how organic or local food and GMOs (i.e., genetically-modified organisms) impact personal and environmental health. Through investigation and collaboration, students learn to identify sources and to use science to verify claims.

In the process of uncovering the facts about how and where food is grown, students may learn things they do not really want to know, such as how livestock factory farms function, or that their favorite snack contains numerous dyes and chemicals. It is important to be sensitive to their responses, but don’t shy away from investigation because you are worried about how someone will feel. Invite exploration of the facts without judgment. Discuss the moral and ethical issues that surface. Be aware that family members may work for an agribusiness or large food company. Any lesson about climate change may debunk myths and beliefs, which can spark an emotional response. Be prepared for surprise, defensiveness, resistance, and dismissal.

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Susan Rauchwerk is an associate professor and the co-director of the Science in Education program and WonderLab at Lesley University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She previously worked as the Education Director for Earthwatch Institute and the Massachusetts Audubon Society.