Ecolabeling: is ethically-sourced food affordable?

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Students will be able to collect and analyze data in order to defend an opinion on the affordability of ethically-sourced food in local supermarkets.

Big Idea

In this investigative project, students go to a local market and compare the prices and overall aesthetic presentation of foods bearing an ecolabel with those that do not.


This lesson is a follow-up to the economics and the environment lesson and gives students an opportunity to explore, first hand, how their choices as consumers can potentially affect the environment.  Additionally, this lesson asks a particularly relevant question for my students in the urban core of Los Angeles: is ethically-sourced, environmentally-friendly food affordable?

In this lesson students will go to local markets, big and small, in their neighborhood and compare similar products with and without ecolabels (e.g., USDA Organic, Rainforest Alliance, GMO Free, etc.).  They will compare pricing and packaging to determine what kinds of messages these products communicate to consumers.  Students then analyze their data and write some short reflections about their experience.

Connection to Standards:

In this lesson, students must conduct short research in the real world to answer a question, gather information, and write informative text, including arguments focused on discipline-specific content.   

Getting Started

15 minutes

This lesson is more of an independent project really, so there’s not much we do in class beyond introducing it, assisting students that are having trouble making sense of the data they collected, and having a reflective discussion at the end of the project.  

I assign this project following the Economics and the Environment lesson, letting students know that a piece of conventional wisdom is that environmentally-friendly products are more costly than comparable products whose producers are less restricted by environmental concerns.

I then let them know that they’ll have the opportunity to test this conventional wisdom by conducting some short field research in their neighborhood.  I distribute the project description and also pass some examples of ecolabled products around the class (in my case, I passed a carton of milk labeled “USDA Organic”, a bag of popcorn labeled “Non GMO Project Verified”, and a bar of chocolate labeled “Rainforest Alliance Certified”).

I then explain to the students that they’ll need to conduct the research on their own time and can go to their neighborhood market or a larger supermarket, or any number of markets if they wish.  One point of explicitly stating these options is to encourage students to examine if these products are available at the smaller markets in their inner-city neighborhood.  

Once any questions have been answered, I let students do some initial research into different ecolabels if time permits.  Like I said, this is more of an independent project and the introductory part doesn’t take up a whole class period.  In my case, we ran out of time during the Economics and the Environment lesson and wound up having that discussion the following class, so this tied in well to end that discussion with an opportunity for some real research.

Independent Working Time

90 minutes

During the next meeting (my class meets every other day), students are expected to have completed their data collection (names, prices, and descriptions of 5 pairs of similar prioducts with and without ecolabels) and we then spend the time analyzing the data to answer the reflective questions.

There are 5 questions on the project description sheet and I ask students to choose 3 questions to answer in short paragraphs.  I prefer to give students the opportunity to make choices about which questions they want to answer so that they gravitate to the questions that they find most compelling.  I just find when students have a choice, they engage with the work that they do at a more substantial level.

I tend to spend this day just helping students with these questions, asking them to look more closely at the data they have collected and coaching them to try and draw meaning from the numbers.  Many students won't need much help with this but others will need a lot of guidance, as long as all students know I'm available should a question arise, I spend most of my time working with the students that need the extra attention.

It’s extremely helpful if students take photographs of the different products they found so that we can look at them together and I can ask more leading questions like, “Why do you think this milk’s label has a cow on it, but this other milk shows a whole farm?  What do you think the company is trying to communicate to potential buyers of the milk?”      

If you want to extend the data analysis, it might be useful to have students make simple graphs  comparing the prices of the products with and without ecolabels (side by side bar graphs would probably work best, e.g. "eco-labeled eggs vs. non labeled eggs).  You may also want to allow for students to do a more in-depth analysis of the overall packaging and presentation of the product.  This might be accomplished by making a poster with images of the ecolabeled products’ packages on one side opposite from the non-labeled products.  Students might then point out features to compare and contrast the different products.  

You could probably go deeper on any one reflective question in terms of having students produce more insightful products, but for the purposes of my class, I wanted to have a lesson where students could look at the basic issue of affordability and the question of whether caring about the environment is a privilege of the rich or if everyone can make decisions as a consumer to help the environment beyond the traditional avenues of reduced consumption or recycling. 


One possible suggestion for going deeper relates to the fourth question:

" What store did you go to and where was it located?  Was it a small market or a supermarket?  Do you think you would have a different experience in a smaller or larger store or in a wealthier or poorer neighborhood?  Explain your reasoning."

This could make for the beginning of an interesting mapping project where students might develop some way to measure or rate stores based on the affordability or availability of ecolabeled products in different neighborhoods.  Depending on time and the level of interest in diving into social and environmental justice issues, you might also use a question like this in a "food desert" investigation to map out things like the availability of fresh produce and health foods, health department ratings of restaurants, food markets versus liquor stores that also sell food, or any number of variables.  This may prove more difficult depending on the area your school is located, but it works great for a school in an urban core like mine, where downtown L.A.'s Skid Row and Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills are just a 20 minute bus ride away for my students (albeit in opposite directions... natch!).

This lesson in the biodiversity unit contains some resources for community mapping if you're interested in taking this ecolabeling investigation further.


20 minutes

Depending on your schedule, you might want to have a reflective discussion on the day this assignment is due.  In my case, we had a fire drill during the day I intended to hold the discussion, so we would have had to hold the discussion in about 10 minutes, which I didn’t think was enough time to give each question its due.  I settled for just collecting their work, but if I had the time, I would follow the basic format for discussions that I’ve outlined in previous lessons.