Investigating Local Food: Meet Your Washington Farmers

June Johnson Bube, Seattle University

Summary

This assignment sequence seeks to stimulate students' thinking and writing about food production in the western Washington bioregion through a series of activities combining readings, class discussion, fieldwork, and writing assignments. Collaborative work in and outside of class culminates in students' interviewing local farmers and vendors at farmers markets and writing a surprising informative essay. In this assignment sequence, students practice synthesis, field research, and expository writing for a specific audience as they explore the agricultural richness of western Washington. They investigate how eating locally grown food (and often organic food) is good for the environment, farmers, the region, and themselves (interdependence of healthy social systems, economies, and ecosystems). Students examine how local food production contributes to sustainable environmental practices and how western Washington residents could make buying locally grown food more practical (interconnectedness and effecting positive social change). As students write for an audience of their peers to share something "surprising" they have learned about local food production and farmers markets, they explore ways to be more environmentally conscious and committed consumers (ecological citizenship, complex thinking, moral decision-making).

Learning Goals

After completing this assignment sequence, students will be able to:
  • List at least twenty foods grown locally in western Washington and name three or four local farms that produce these foods.
  • Explain some of the farming methods employed by local farmers (for example, free range chickens, organic farming methods, etc.), and explain how these farming methods are beneficial to the environment, consumers, and the bioregion.
  • Use synthesis thinking to explain several ways that the readings on local food connect with what they have learned from talking to the farmers who grow food locally.
  • Create a questionnaire that includes a variety of questions that are clear, direct, and unambiguous as well as convenient for respondents to fill out.
  • Articulate their own assumptions and values concerning food production and consumption.
  • Write interview questions that incorporate information gained from web sites on local farms and farmers markets and that will elicit informative and lively responses from local farmers and vendors.
  • Write a surprising informative essay, using the "surprising reversal" move to enlighten their peers about some aspect of farmers markets and locally grown food and to bring new informed insights to this audience.
  • State several ways that reading about food production and investigating local farmers markets have influenced how they think about their relationship to food in the bioregion.
  • Explain several ways that consumers' habits can encourage local food production and benefit the bioregion.

Context for Use

This course theme is on environmental sustainability and the focus is on analysis and argumentation. In asking students to see food and our bioregion in a new way, this assignment sequence is built on the principle that sound understanding of and appreciation for the resources of the bioregion will lead to responsible action.

This three-four week assignment sequence comes from a unit in a thematic first-year composition course. It would probably function best toward the beginning or middle of a course.

This sequence could also fit in any introductory or intermediate writing course centered on environmental issues.

Description and Teaching Materials

This course theme is on environmental sustainability and the focus is on analysis and argumentation. In asking students to see food and our bioregion in a new way, this assignment sequence is built on the principle that sound understanding of and appreciation for the resources of the bioregion will lead to responsible action.

The purpose of this unit is twofold: (1) to help students develop as writers by constructing knowledge synthesized from readings and gained through fieldwork and by practicing several thinking/writing moves that are important to academic discourse; and (2) to encourage students to think about food in terms of how and where is it grown, who grows it, how growing food locally affects the healthfulness of food, and how building up the local food system can support sustainable environmental practices (and as a by-product, enhance the food security of the region). In his article "The Pleasures of Eating," in which Wendell Berry strives to reintroduce city dwellers to food production by exhorting them "to eat responsibly," he begins with the proposition that "eating is an agricultural act. Eating ends the annual drama of the food economy that begins with planting and birth" (Berry, Saving Place 231). The readings, fieldwork, and writing assignments in this unit seek to help students expand their contact with food production beyond the supermarket, convenience restaurants, and university cafeteria. By accompanying course readings with experiential learning at local farmers markets, this unit seeks to give students a glimpse of food production from farmers' perspectives and to motivate students to modify their eating and food buying habits to include more locally produced food and organic food. When students see the growers of their food as real people, they may want to establish ongoing producer-consumer relationships with them, returning to buy produce regularly from these growers.

Preliminary or Background Activity

In the introduction to this assignment sequence, students have read the following articles and chapters on the controversies surrounding the production of food and specifically the benefits of locally grown food:
  • Wendell Berry, "The Pleasures of Eating" from Saving Place: An Ecocomposition Reader
  • Excerpts from Peter Singer and Jim Mason, The Ethics of What We Eat
  • Excerpts from John Robbins, Food Revolution: How Your Diet Can Help Save Your Life and Our World
  • Excerpts from Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life
  • James E. McWilliams, "Food That Travels Well," New York Times, 6 August 2007
  • Ellen Goodman, "Think Globally, Eat Locally," Boston Globe, 31 May 2007
  • Paul Krugman, "Fear of Eating," New York Times, 21 May 2007
[Note: Instructors could select other equally effective readings that raise key questions about local food production.]

Each student has written 200-word summaries of three of the readings, and all class members have pooled their summaries so that each student has in writing the gist of the argument for each reading. Through group and class discussion of these readings, the class has framed questions about the controversies over local food: the benefits and drawbacks of local versus global food systems; concerns about animal rights; concerns about food safety; the issue of nutrition; the advantages and limitations of organic farming; and the problem of food security. These topics form the backdrop and big picture for the questions students will investigate in their fieldwork: What is the status of local food production in our bioregion? How is eating an "agricultural act," as Wendell Barry claims? Or put another way, how does what we eat influence agricultural practices?

[Note:In this unit, we considered "local" any food produced in the western Washington corridor from Canada to Oregon and west of Moses Lake, including food produced in Yakima, Wenatchee, Lake Chelan, Chehalis, and Vancouver (WA). Our definition of local food did not fit the 100-mile diet's definition, a fact that could lead to a productive discussion.]

Activities

Task 1:
As a lead-in to students' field research on local food and farmers markets, students should think about their own relationship to food. Have they ever raised their own food? Do they often think about where their food comes from? Do they love exotic, specialty foods from distant countries? Students might freewrite their responses to these and similar questions prior to class discussion. Then students should identify their views of farmers markets. The instructor could then conduct a class discussion about assumptions and preconceptions students have of farmers markets. The class could list these on the board and use them as departure points in crafting their questionnaires.

After this introductory in-class thinking, students, working in teams of three and four, prepare a questionnaire about farmers markets that they give to at least twenty-five of their peers. The purpose of this questionnaire is to determine their peers' attitude toward farmers markets. The responses expressed by peers in these questionnaires will form the popular or common views that students try to reverse or enlarge in their surprising informative essays. [The one stipulation of the assignment is that students in their fieldwork need to find something positive about local food production and farmers markets.] In creating their questionnaires, students may want to consult the "Guidelines for Preparing Questionnaires." (See attachments below).
Sample questions might be
  • How often have you bought food at a farmers market? (fixed-choice question)
______Never
______Two or three times in my life
______Weekly
______Two or three times each summer
  • What kinds of food items have you purchased at farmers markets? (open-ended question)
  • What impressions do you have of farmers markets in terms of cost, variety of items, and convenience? (open-ended question)
  • What kinds of foods do you think are locally grown in western Washington? (open-ended question)
  • What other items (food and nonfood) would you expect to find at farmers markets? (open-ended question)
  • How many times in the last month have you been aware that food you were eating was locally grown? (question with operationally defined terms)
  • What kind of food budget do you have? (category question)
_____I have a food card paid along with tuition.
_____I live off-campus and buy and prepare my own food.
_____ I share food costs with my roommates.
_____I live with my family and my food costs are covered under my family's budget.
After students have gathered and tallied the answers to their questionnaires from at least twenty-five respondents, the class should discuss common and popular responses and list these on the board.
Timeframe:Students should prepare their questionnaires by the end of the first week of the unit and distribute them to respondents before the beginning of the second week.
Task 2:
In their groups or in pairs, students will visit a local farmers market and informally interview at least three of the vendors and learn about their farming methods. Some of these farmers markets are open through mid-February on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., although in the late fall and early spring there are more options. To prepare for these interviews—which will really be three to five questions—students should research the Neighborhood Farmers Alliance (http://www.seattlefarmersmarkets.org) to determine the names of some farms and the kinds of crops they grow. Other research could include these web sites: Seattle Tilth Association (http://www.seattletilth.org), which lists farms in Seattle and western Washington, indicates at which farmers markets these farms sell produce, and indicates what produce is available each week; Puget Sound Fresh: Community Supported Agriculture (http://www.pugetsoundfresh.org), which also lists farms and their produce and whether the farm is certified organic; and Locavores (http://www.locavores.com), which explains the philosophy and values behind eating locally.

During their visit to the farmers market, students should take notes on their observations, especially of things that surprised them, and should pick up brochures from farmers and vendors. Based on the information they have gleaned from Web research, they should target a few food items that they eat regularly that they might consider buying at farmers markets. In getting ready for their interviews, students may want to consult the "Preparation Suggestions for Interviews" and the "Suggestions for Your Visit."

Timeframe: During the second week of the unit, students should do their background research in preparation for going to the farmers market. Instructors could devote some class time to discussing interview questions and procedures. Students should plan to visit the farmers market in pairs or groups before the beginning of the third week.Possible
Task 3:
As the final part of this assignment sequence, students use the surprising informative essay assignment to synthesize, incorporate, and apply the knowledge they have gained through the readings in this unit, their questionnaires, and their fieldwork at the farmers markets. Students should have come to some new understanding of farmers markets and local food in our bioregion that they are eager to share with their peers outside the class.

This essay assignment employs a thinking/writing move used in much popular journalism and in a more sophisticated form, in academic writing. The surprising reversal move that underlies this informative essay engages and holds readers' interest by setting up and using the tension between a common view of a subject and the writer's new or informed view. The writer's purpose is to enlarge readers' thinking about this subject.
See Possible Timeframe for this Assignment Sequence attachment below.

Example of the Surprising Reversal Move: Thesis Statements with Tension

Although many college students think of farmers markets as food boutiques—the arts and crafts fairs of food–selling pricy, impractical specialty foods such as clove honey, turnips, vegan bread, and kinds of fruits they have never seen before, farmers markets in western Washington actually sell seasonal everyday vegetables and fruits such as apples, tomatoes, green beans, and zucchini at competitive prices.

Although people commonly associate farmers markets with organic food, some local farmers offer practical reasons for not growing officially certified organic food.

Farmers markets clearly focus on selling local produce and other food items, yet farmers as well as regular consumers say that farmers markets value community building as much as profits and purchasing food.

After introducing a thesis that exhibits this "tension" between what many people think and what the writer has discovered, the essay must meet readers' expectations to make this new view interesting, informative, and useful. Farmers markets and local food production lend themselves to this writing move because many people have misconceptions about farmers markets, and many people have not thought about how much of their food is locally produced. Investigating farms in western Washington and talking to farmers should compel students to think about what foods are produced nearby, how these foods are produced, and how consumers can encourage local food production. Students may find that they want to pursue the relationship they have established with farmers or vendors.

Before students' visit to the farmers market, instructors may want to hand out and go over the "Surprising Informative Essay" assignment.

Timeframe: Students should write their surprising informative essay right after their visit to the farmers market when the visit is fresh in their minds and bring a complete draft to the next class (the beginning of the third week) for peer reviews. After peer reviews, students should revise their essays and submit them for a grade.

Possible Timeframe for this Assignment Sequence (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 12kB Nov3 11)
Guidelines for Preparing Questionnaires (Microsoft Word 26kB Nov3 11)
Preparation Suggestions for Interviews at Farmers Markets (Microsoft Word 30kB Nov3 11)
Writing Project: Surprising Informative Essay Assignment (Microsoft Word 27kB Nov3 11)
Peer Review Guidelines for Surprising Informative Essays (Microsoft Word 30kB Nov3 11)

Teaching Notes and Tips

The best time of year to do this assignment sequence is either early in the fall or late in the spring when more farmers markets are regularly open on the weekends. Instructors might want to string this unit out over more weeks than four to give students time to gather information from their questionnaires and to conduct visits to farmers markets. Because the success of this assignment depends on the quality of the results students get at every stage, instructors may want to monitor the groups at every point by having students share their questionnaires, the information from their respondents, their background research on the Web in preparation for visiting the farmers markets as well as their questions, and the observations, notes, and responses that students gathered during their visits to farmers markets.

In addition, the more background instructors have themselves on local farmers markets, locally produced food, and community supported agriculture, the better. Instructors will probably want to do some preliminary fieldwork by visiting several farmers markets in the area before assigning this unit.

This assignment sequence featuring collaborative work in and outside the classroom, taught early in a term, could be a way to help students bond and form a writing community.

Finally, instructors could convert the culminating writing project into an argument or op-ed piece in which students increased the stakes as well as the pressure on their audience to see local food and farmers markets their way. Instructors might choose to have students argue against a view expressed in some of the unit's readings or expressed by the questionnaire respondents. Also, instructors would have to give students space to argue that despite their virtues, farmers markets do not yet serve the needs of certain groups of people who prize convenience and need to buy in bulk. In other words, there might be a time in the unit to address the limitations of farmers markets and the problems the bioregion would have in supplying all the food needs of its residents. Students might discuss how not all the food produced locally is organically grown: for example, some local dairies use antibiotics and hormones to increase milk production, and some local blueberry farms use insecticides. While students are likely to discover a highly committed group of organic farmers, they also need to consider the factors that motivate farmers to choose methods other than organic farming. Such a discussion might lead students to think about ways to make local food production more practical on a bigger scale. All these discussion points would contribute to the larger purpose of this unit: to engage students in an appreciative study of western Washington's agricultural richness and to encourage them to think responsibly about their role as consumers in this system.

Assessment

Peer Reviews

Peer reviews could be conducted in groups during class, or instructors could form the groups and ask students to meet outside class to read and comment on each other's surprising informative essays using the Peer Review Questions. In class, the instructor could lead a discussion about what is challenging about this writing assignment so that the students can think together to "solve" their rhetorical problems. See "Peer Review Guidelines for Surprising Informative Essays."

Self-Reflection

When students submit their revised essays, they should append a two-page self-reflection paper that answers one or several of these questions:
  • What have you learned about local food production in western Washington?
  • What changes would you consider making in your food buying and in your eating habits based on what you have learned about food produced in our bioregion and about farmers' markets?
  • How did meeting some of the people who produce food affect your views of your food buying and eating habits?
This reflection could follow a "Before I thought X, but now I think Y" pattern.

Other questions students might want to address are these:
  • How would you say that local food production is related to environmentally sustainable practices?
  • In what ways, do you think your eating habits can influence sustainable agricultural practices in our bioregion?

Scoring Guide for Evaluating Surprising Informative Essays

The following analytic scoring guide focuses on key features of academic and expository prose (thesis-governed writing, clear structure, coherence, development of ideas, clarity, and so forth) as well as on the specific features of this type of essay (the tension between the common or popular view and writer's "new" and "surprising' view of the topic, in this case, the constellation of topics—local food in western Washington, farmers markets, effects on the environment, and consumers' contributions to sustainable agriculture—the engaging presentation of the writer's new insights, and so on).

See Analytic Scoring Guide for Surprising Informative Essays attachment below.

Analytical Scoring Guide for Surprising Informative Essays (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 14kB Nov3 11)

References and Resources

Berry, Wendell, "The Pleasures of Eating." Saving Place: An Ecocomposition Reader. Ed. Sidney I. Dobrin. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2005.

Kingsolver, Barbara. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.

Locavores. http://www.locavores.com

Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance. http://www.seattlefarmersmarket.org

Puget Sound Fresh http://www.pugetsoundfresh.org

Ramage, John D., John Bean, and June Johnson. The Allyn and Bacon Guide to Writing. 5th Edition. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2009.

Robbins, John. Food Revolution: How Your Diet Can Help Save Your Life and Our World. Berkeley: Conari Press, 2001.

Seattle Tilth Association. http://www.seattletilth.org

Singer, Peter, and Jim Mason, The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter. Rodale, 2006.

Evergreen State College