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Teaching about Food

Concepts on this page were derived from faculty discussions at the workshop, Systems, Society, Sustainability and the Geosciences, held in July 2012.
Pedagogic wisdom advises us to make classroom learning relevant to students' everyday lives. When teaching about food, that connection is inherent. Yet deeper thinking about food is something that students may not consider. Where does our food originate? What types of soil, water and energy resources are embodied in our foods? What are the cultural effects on food choices in different regions? What do we do about societies with too little food? Or too much food? How can we ensure a safe and enduring food supply for future generations? This subject area offers many pathways to begin with a straightforward topic and expand it into more complex areas of science and sustainability.

Where does teaching about food fit into the curriculum?

In some cases, food may be the subject of an entire course. But more commonly it will be interwoven into existing courses as case studies, projects, or ways to connect course topics to students' lives. Below are several examples of how food can be interwoven into existing curricula:

  • Food production has environmental impacts (food miles, nutrient pollution, soil and water resources)
  • Resource requirements for different types of foods
  • Understanding the impacts can inform personal food choices
  • Illustrate interconnections among seemingly disparate topics (health, environment, social equity, economics, waste, fossil fuel use)
  • Scales of production and the differing impacts of each
  • Efficiencies – minimizing loses, eating low on food chain and don't need to increase production
  • Social justice concerns (production, distribution, food deserts in urban areas, food security, etc.)
  • The crossover and potential conflict between food grown for biofuels and food grown for consumption

Effective strategies for teaching about food

Every student has a personal connection with food. Effective pedagogy will expand their thinking beyond their own "face value" experiences and consider the food supply from broader perspectives such as society, economics, environment and resource use. Below are some strategies to make these connections. For specific examples, see the activities and courses for teaching about food.

  • Examine life cycle analysis of a given food to explore the energy, land and resource inputs and the waste outputs (For example, what goes into one pound of pork by the time it arrives on your plate?)
  • Perform calculations and comparisons of embodied energy in various foods (example activity: How Much Energy is on my Plate?)
  • Examine the water requirements of various foods, using tools like these from National Geographic or the Water Footprint Network
  • Take field trips to local farms, CSAs, grocery stores, agricultural companies, food production facilities, food banks or commercial-scale kitchens
  • Tour or audit the campus food system
  • Use a community garden as a lab activity (example course: Agroecology)
  • Use case studies to link global problems (hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico) with local practices
  • Use a systems approach to look at calorie production
  • Plan and prepare shared meals
  • Have students interview a person from a different generation or a different culture to gain different perspectives about food
  • Show and discuss thought-provoking films (Food Inc, Dive, The Big Waste, King Corn, Supersize Me, American Meat, The Big Night, Queen of the Sun, Jamie Oliver series)
  • Discuss values, biases and misconceptions in food. For example, does organic food always have a smaller environmental footprint?
  • Use personal food logs and journals; allowing or encouraging students to try changes in their diet based on what they have learned in class (example activity: The Lifestyle Project)
  • Have students create a photography project of food and food sources
  • Use data-driven websites for class activities (Worldmapper.org, Breathingearth.net, BonAppetit's Low-Carbon Calculator (offline during its redesign), choosemyplate.gov)


Opportunities to strengthen teaching about food

There are few, if any, academic departments about food. Thus, this is a highly interdisciplinary topic that benefits from cooperation not only between academic disciplines but also with those directly involved with food production or processing.

  • Strive for interdisciplinary teaching (physical science, social science, dining services) – need to reach beyond walls of universities to farmers and consumers of the food system from all socio-economic levels
  • Incorporate health aspects (we have no expertise, but could use dieticians, doctors, nurses)
  • Include policy, such as the Farm Bill (this is also outside the expertise of many science faculty)
  • Reach out to dining services on campus (and perhaps campus landscaping) to see where student involvement or faculty collaboration could be beneficial
  • Consider informational labeling in dining halls - this could be a collaborative effort or a student project