Have Food, Will Travel (1 of 3)

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Students will be able to: 1) explain why food travels over long distances and 2) cite evidence from the local community for why a global food system is necessary.

Big Idea

The food consumed during a typical New York City dinner may have traveled over 10,000 cumulative miles. How might we use our understanding of the costs and benefits of global food distribution to identify aspects of the food system to redesign?

FOOD UNIT FRAME: Content, feedback, process, and purpose

This unit focuses on humans' complex relationship with food and incorporates key takeaways from the four previous units.  Engineering design thinking, citizen STEM, environmental justice, and populations will be used as analytic lenses throughout.  How do our food choices help or hurt our planet?  This is our essential question.  In answering this question, we will look at many others. How might we redesign the food system?  What can citizens do to collect meaningful data to understand and impact the food system? Why are there more bodegas in low-income communities?  And how can we feed the world's growing population without destroying the Earth?  Throughout this unit, students will develop presentations skills, conduct fieldwork, hone engineering design thinking, engage with simulations and models, create implementable solutions to real-world problems, and advocate for change within communities.  Food, food systems, food technology, and sustainability concepts related to food will be the lens through which students explore the relationship between personal choice and the health of the natural world. For a succinct reflection of the successes, failures, and future directions of this unit, see this UNIT REFLECTION.

FEEDBACK NOTE: Throughout this unit, important objectives are highlighted in BOLD. The highest leverage objectives are in BOLD and UNDERLINED.  Students receive mastery-based feedback every lesson; prototype activity guides provide a snapshot of how students record their mastery level and actionable next steps.  My lessons use a "1-4" code for proficiency ratings. (1=Underdeveloped; 2=Developing; 3=Proficient; 4=Well-developed).  The goal for each student is to earn a 3.  Students receive actionable feedback for each objective if they have not yet earned a 3.

PLANNING NOTE: This is the longest unit in this curriculum. I taught it as a single unit with a unifying food theme.  However, teachers preferring a shorter unit structured might consider splitting this unit into parts:

  • PART ONE: Food Systems
    • Lessons:  "Have Food, Will Travel" through "DESIGN CHALLENGE: Food Labels"
  • PART TWO: Agriculture and Sustainable Design
    • Lessons: "Does McDonalds Have a Farm" through "CAPSTONE: Feeding 9 Billion Through Sustainable Farm Design"

STANDARDS NOTE: As noted in previous unit frames, design choices for this curriculum attempt to align to the Next Generation Science Standards and the Excellence in Environmental Education Standards developed by the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE). The NGSS are likely more familiar to educators.  As such, below is brief description of the key elements of the NAAEE standards that I have attempted to incorporate into this unit whenever possible.  They are en excellent complement to the NGSS, especially for course with a focus on connections between human communities and the environment.  A summary of the philosophy of these standards is below (and was taken from the new NYC 6-12 Science Scope and Sequence guidelines that I helped to create with a small cohort of STEM educators):

  • Environmental education builds from a core of key principles that inform its approach to education. Some of these important foundations are:
    • Systems: Systems help make sense of a large and complex world. A system is made up of parts. Each part can be understood separately. The whole, however, is understood only by understanding the relationships and interactions among the parts. The human body can be understood as a system; so can galaxies. Organizations, individual cells, communities of animals and plants, and families can all be understood as systems. And systems can be nested within other systems.
    • Interdependence: Human well-being is inextricably bound with environmental quality. Humans are a part of the natural order. We and the systems we create— our societies, political systems, economies, religions, cultures, technologies— impact the total environment. Since we are a part of nature rather than outside it, we are challenged to recognize the ramifications of our interdependence. The importance of where one lives: Beginning close to home, learners forge connections with, explore, and understand their immediate surroundings. The sensitivity, knowledge, and skills needed for this local connection provides a base for moving out into larger systems, broader issues, and an expanding understanding of causes, connections, and consequences.
    • Integration and infusion: Disciplines from the natural sciences to the social sciences to the humanities are connected through the medium of the environment and environmental issues. Environmental education offers opportunities for integration and works best when infused across the curriculum, rather than being treated as a separate discipline or subject area. Roots in the real world: Learners develop knowledge and skills through direct experience with the environment, environmental issues, and society. Investigation, analysis, and problem solving are essential activities and are most effective when relevant to the real world.
    • Lifelong learning: Critical and creative thinking, decision making, and communication, as well as collaborative learning, are emphasized. These skills are essential for active and meaningful learning, both in school and over a lifetime.

RESOURCE NOTE:  The attached document is the complete NAAEE Excellence in Environmental Education Standards.  It is broken down into four strands:

  • STRAND 1— Questioning, Analysis, and Interpretation Skills
  • STRAND 2— Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems
  • STRAND 3— Skills for Understanding and Addressing Environmental Issues
  • STRAND 4— Personal and Civic Responsibility

Strands 3 and 4 are of particular interest to this curriculum, as they emphasize the the skills and ethical consideration needed to establish and maintain a sustainable connection between human communities and the physical environment.

LESSON FRAME: Food transport

"Have Food, Will Travel" is an opening three lesson sequence that introduces students to key unit concepts.  Specifically, we will use the lens of food distribution and transport, especially the concept of food miles, to frame the idea that the food we choose to consume imposes costs on the environment.  By the end of this three lesson sequence, students will be able to: 1) explain why food travels over long distances; 2) cite evidence from the local community for why a global food system is necessary; 3) measure food miles; 4) map the pathways of commonly eaten foods in New York; 5) calculate the hidden costs of food, such as greenhouse gases and energy use; and 6) develop nuanced arguments for and against transported food based on the complex, often contradictory literature.

In this opening lesson, students make observations of the industrial food sytem, develop explanations for the necessity of food travel, and begin to explore the connections between the local food system and global food production.  To reach this goal, student teams will take on one of three challenges.  Each challenge highlights a different aspect of food transport, including local agricultural production, local food resources, and international food trade.  By the end of this first lesson, students should be able to explain how the local food system connects to broader global food distribution, and cite appropriate community-based evidence for this explanation.


  • ACTIVITY GUIDE: Here is a prototype activity guide that teachers might want to modify for the learning activities in this sequence of lessons.
  • ONLINE RESOURCES: There are countless high-quality teacher resources for food and agriculture lessons.  Of particular use for this lesson is the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health's "Teaching the Food System."  Johns Hopkins' resource page has a number of lesson leads for the curious educator.
  • PREOFSSIONAL READINGS: Finally, attached are a few brief readings that provide some background information about the food miles concept. 

FLIPPED: e2: Food miles

What is the purpose of this section?

Students have an opportunity to preview content for the new unit.  Teachers are able to front-load concept formation; theoretically this will improve engagement and make for higher level discussion early in the unit.

What will students do?

Students are asked to randomly choose a five minute slice from e2: Food Miles and develop a summary paragraph responding to these three questions:

  1. What did you see?
  2. What do you think this means?
  3. How does this connect to our previous units?

Responses to these questions will inform students' work in the ENGAGE section by providing a conceptual lens to apply to the learning activity.  Students that have successfully completed this FLIPPED activity will be able to use evidence gathered from the chosen five minutes to explain something about the environmental, economic, and social impact of the great distances that food travels.

RESOURCE NOTE:  This clip is from the PBS series e2: The economics of being environmentally conscious.  This is a series that explores the impact of human systems on the environment and is an excellent complement to any lesson that explores the intersection of STEM and human social behavior.

ENGAGE: Something's fishy

10 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Students engage with a visual overview of the major topics for this lesson sequence.  The teacher is able to gather formative assessment data.  What do students already know?  What do they want to know? 

What will students do?

Students employ a modified "What? So what? Now what?" protocol to make meaning of the attached short film.  (This is a protocol from the School Reform Initiative, a great resource for educators wanting to incorporate more student-facilitated discussions.  Usually, I will use this protocol when coaching teachers; I have found that it can also provide excellent structure for students' analysis.)  Here is the process students use:

  1. Students first make observations.  This is the "What?"  
  2. Next students take these observations and attach meaning.  Why do I think this observation is important? This is the "So what?"  
  3. Finally, students propose a concrete action that might be taken in the real world.  This is the "Now what?"

Students record ideas in their notebooks during viewing.  Next, students discuss ideas in small groups and each group shares out one idea with the class.

What will the teacher do?

The teacher circulates during the clip, facilitates small group as well as whole class discussion, and collects data.  What do students record as observations?  What meaning do students make of these observations?  This information will allow the teacher to more effectively address students' misconceptions and needs over this three lesson sequence.  Teachers should specifically focus on students' ability to connect the costs of food (economic, environmental, and social) to the distance that that food travels.

EXPLORE: Food constraints

40 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Students will understand food distribution through an engineering design thinking lens.  What needs does this system meet?  What problems does it create?  What opportunities exist for new solutions?  The teacher gathers formative assessment data related to the objectives for this lesson.  What do students understand of the food system?  Where do students make errors?  What points need to be emphasized or clarified during the EXPLAIN section? 

TIMING NOTE: This activity might take an additional class period, depending on students' needs.  For some students, especially those with with IEPs or those students that are learning English, additional time will be beneficial.

ATTRIBUTION NOTE:  This section adopted from materials here.

What will students do?

Students will work in teams of four to five students.  These teams should be the same teams that discussed the content from the ENGAGE activity.  Teachers will need to be vigilant when it comes to the collaborative capacity of teams for this activity, as it will require complex thinking and public presentation.  Students should only choose teams if they have demonstrated the capacity to choose appropriate collaboration partners.  

First, students will collaboratively develop an initial answer to this question:  Why do humans transport food over long distances? Student groups will write responses on white boards that will be on public display for this activity.

Second, students will accomplish one of three tasks.  These tasks are described below:

TASK 1: Farmland Capacity

Framing questionsHow much of New York State's farmland would the residents of Sunset Park require to adequately feed everybody?  Is there even enough farmland in New York State to feed all the people in New York City? 

Use the data below to develop an answer to both questions.  You will present findings to the class.

Background Data:

  • The average healthy person needs to eat about 2755 pounds of food each year. For a healthy, balanced diet, the average person needs to eat about 1.25 metric tons of food in a year. That’s enough to fill a large pickup truck.
  • According to the NYC Department of Planning Data, approximately 125,000 people were living in Sunset Park as of 2010.
  • According to the United States Census Bureau, approximately 8.5 million people were living in New York City in 2013.
  • According to the National Agricultural Statistics Survey, there are about 7.5 million acres of farmland in New York.
  • Assume that each acre of farmland in New York will produce about 1.1 metric tons of food.

TASK 2: The 100 mile challenge

Framing questions: Could we survive if we ate food produced within 100 miles of our high school?  What foods and food ingredients do we typically consume?  Is this food or ingredient produced within 100 miles of Sunset Park?  If so, when is it available?


Complete the following table.  You may use the internet to research foods produced in New York City and the surrounding region. For processed foods, such as chips and soda, examine the ingredient list and make a best guess.


Foods and food ingredients that I typically eat include:

Is this food or ingredient produced within 100 miles of Brooklyn?  

When is this food or ingredient available?


TASK 3: Places (see prototype activity guide for matching activity)

Framing question: Draw a line matching each place to the one food it is best known for producing or exporting. (There should be only one line connected to each place and to each food.) What do you think are some of the reasons why these places are the top producers of these foods?

Third, student teams will present findings.  This will be the first of many presentations in this unit.  As such, for this first presentation students must meet four constraints, but they will not have coaching or guidelines.  These presentations are an important first opportunity for the teacher to collect data.  What does each student need to improve to provide a compelling public presentation?:

  1. Presentations should answer two questions: 1) What did you investigate?  What did you learn?
  2. Presentation should have one visual.
  3. Presentations should be at least two minutes.
  4. All group members must speak.

Fourth, all students will engage in a classroom discussion.  Why do we transport food? 

Fifth, students will revisit this question: Why do humans transport food over long distances?Groups will revise  initial answers to include evidence from the student presentations.  Whiteboards remain visible as reference throughout the remaining two lessons in this sequence.

What will the teacher do?

During the task activities, the teacher will provide clarification and assistance where necessary.  Here are the key moves for each task:

  • Farmland capacity: Students are most likely to need assistance with calculations and conversions.  Students with stronger math skills will be most successful with this activity.
  • The 100 mile challenge: Students will most likely need assistance with conducting internet research.  Students with strong research skills are most likely to be successful.
  • Places: Students will most likely need assistance with geography and internet research.   Students with an interest in international trade and geography will be most successful.

Because this is an open-ended assignment, the teacher may also need to push students thinking and facilitate conversations that reveal students' solution strategies and assumption. 

During presentations, the teacher will primarily record formative assessment data.  Feedback will be given to students in an iterative process as groups give more presentations throughout this unit.  This lesson is not the time to give students extensive presentation feedback.

Finally, during discussion, the teacher will facilitate synthesis.  What needs does this system meet?  What problem does it create? What opportunities exist for new solutions? A member from each group should speak.

EXIT: Synthesis

5 minutes

What will students do?

Students individually answer one of three questions: 1) Why do humans transport food over long distance?; 2) Why is our food system often called an "industrial food system"?; and 3) What is the role of New York in the global food system? Respond by developing a claim supported by evidence from student presentations.  Additionally, develop one counterclaim to your argument and provide evidence arguing against that counterclaim. 

This is an opportunity for students to consolidate their nascent understanding of food miles and food systems from the various activities of this lesson. Students should be able to articulate an idea about the purpose of food transport that includes evidence from student group presentations.  Students should also be able to articulate something about the industrial nature of this system.  (Example: This systems relies on technology, machinery, and energy to distribute mass produced food throughout the world.) These synthesis reflections are valuable formative assessment evidence data that teachers can incorporate into the next two lessons.