Have Food, Will Travel (3 of 3)

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Students will be able to: 1) calculate the environmental impact of a favorite meal; and 2) develop nuanced arguments for and against transported food based on the complex, often contradictory literature.

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?

FRAME: What do my food choices really cost?

In the previous lesson, students learned to evaluate the environmental impact of food systems through quantitative analyses of case studies.  They mapped food distribution network and calculated the carbon and fossil fuel footprints.  At the end of class, students were challenged to apply this framework to a favorite meal. 

For this final lesson in the "Have Food, Will Travel" sequence, students will apply the food miles concept, distribution maps, and environmental impact analysis to their personal lives.  Students will use the data lab framework from the previous lesson to calculate the environmental impact of a favorite meal. This is the same assignment that students were asked to start before this lesson.  Students will then explore the food miles concept more deeply through public debate.  What does the food miles concept tell us about the environmental impact of our food choices?  Finally, students will again consider the idea that the global food system is an industrial food complex that masks many hidden costs to the environment.

By the end of this lesson, students will be able to meet all of the objectives for this lesson sequence: 1) explain why food travels over long distances; 2) measure food miles; 3) map the pathways of commonly eaten foods in New York; 4) calculate the hidden costs of food, such as greenhouse gases and energy use; and 5) develop nuanced arguments for and against transported food based on the complex, often contradictory literature.  Teachers that want to prioritize these objectives should focus on 1) and 3) and 4). At minimum, students should be able to articulate why food transport networks exist and they should also be able to identify and quantify the hidden costs to the environment and human health of these networks.  Students that have successfully completed the "Have Food, Will Travel" lesson sequence should be able to draw on the skills of mapping distribution networks and calculating carbon and energy footprints to articulate an evidence-based response to the essential question of this unit: How do our food choices help or hurt our planet?  

RESOURCE NOTE:  The attached PROTOTYPE ACTIVITY GUIDE contains content that teachers might want to modify for use in their classes.

EVALUATE: What is the cost of my meal?

20 minutes

What is the purpose of this activity?

Students have an opportunity to apply understanding of the food miles concept to a favorite meal.  Teachers are able to check for student understanding and monitor student progress without the scaffolded directions and data sheets from from the ELABORATE "Food miles lab" section.

DIFFERENTIATION NOTE: Students may not have a favorite meal, or may have trouble conducting this analysis with a favorite meal.  The teach might want to consider having model meals available for students.  Many of my students, for example, enjoy foods or are most familiar with food from McDonalds, Burger King, Dunkin Donuts, and local bodegas.  I have sample meals ready to distribute to students that were not able to successfully complete this activity outside of class.

What will students do?

The goal of this activity is for individual students to answer the following question: If we factor in the impact to the environment, what is the actual cost of your favorite meal?  Most students will have completed preliminary work for this activity as an assignment from the previous lesson.

To do this, first students describe a favorite meal.  Second, students calculate the distance traveled by the described meal.  As with the data lab, this distance includes all component of the meal. Students can use the "partial foods list" from the PROTOTYPE ACTIVITY GUIDE and this food mile tool.  Third, students calculate the energy used and greenhouse gases emitted in the transportation of the meal. Fourth, students develop an actual cost of their meal.  How much environmental damage does you meal cause?  Do you think food prices should include energy and greenhouse gas emission costs?  Explain.  Finally, students share out adjusted costs for meals as well as the reasoning behind those costs.

What will the teacher do?

The teacher circulates and assists with this activity as needed by individual students.  The primary focus is gathering data related to students' ability to apply concepts and skills to a novel problem.  This activity provides important assessment data.  Can a student map a distribution network?  Can a student conduct environmental impact analyses?  Does a student understand that a the price of food may not always incorporate the cost to the environment of that food?  Students should be able to defend the determined costs for a meal.  The accuracy of the actual price is not important here; what matters is that student prices reflect the idea that the cost of food to the consumer may not accurately capture actual costs of the food, especially given often detrimental environmental impact.

EXTENSION DEBATE:What do food miles tell us?

30 minutes

What is the purpose of this activity?

Students have an opportunity to develop a more nuanced understanding of the food miles concept by reviewing three articles.  Teachers are able to assess students current understanding, and students ability to apply new information derived from secondary source literature to existing understandings of the food miles concept.  By the end of this debate students should understand that food miles are one of many tools that might be used to assess environmental impact.  The concept is used by many scientists, but it is not universally embraced.  In fact, food miles are similar to other impact metrics in that there is not perfect agreement about how they should be applied.  Students should be able to explain that environmental impact analyses are not always perfectly straightforward and that there is more than one way to measure impact. 

TIMING NOTE:  The "EXTENSION DEBATE" activity requires high-level critical thinking skills.  It may not be appropriate to all classes.  Students that are still struggling with the food miles concept and the calculation of environment impact, for example, would be better served by an extension of the EVALUATE activity.  Instead of this debate, students could present their favorite meals as a gallery walk and give and receive feedback to each other.  

What will students do?

First, students will describe their current understanding of the food miles concept in one paragraph.  Second, students will choose one article below to use as a data source to revise their paragraph of current understanding:

What new information does this article contain?  What would you modify about your initial understanding paragraph?  Why? Please revise your paragraph using new information.  

Finally, students will engage in a brief debate about the food miles concept.  What is the definition of food miles?  Is the food miles concept valuable? What are the benefits of the food miles concept for our ability to analyze environmental impact?  What are the drawbacks of using the food miles concept to assess environmental impact of food?  

Debates will last for approximately 10 minutes in class and can take place in a whole group, small group, or triad. Whatever format a class chooses should include a "for" food miles group, an "against" food miles group, and a "moderator" group (this group facilitates and judges a winner.)  Students are familiar with this format from the "Are humans on the verge of collapse?" lesson sequence from the Population unit.

What will the teacher do?

This activity is most appropriate for students with grade level Common Core reading and writing skills.  It allows a teacher to identify students' current understanding of new material by examining what a student highlights as significant new information.  Teachers will scaffold the reading and writing process as necessary.  For instance, some students will need differentiated texts, or excerpts of texts.  The teacher will also have to choose a design for the debate that meets the needs of the class.  Are students comfortable in a whole group environment?  Do individuals demonstrate strong relationship trust with peers?  Should students with well-developed skills pair with students that possess less developed skills?  Students successfully completing this activity should understand that food miles are not a fully accepted concept, that environmental impact is difficult to measure, and that environmental impact can be counterintuitive, such as when locally grown food is less "green" than transported food.  As such, students should leave this debate understanding that food distribution is not inherently bad.  Local food systems also contribute to negative environmental impact.  Ultimately, the ability to conduct robust environmental impact requires a deep understanding of the costs and benefits of all food production and distribution solutions.  This will be an essential framework for the Unit CAPSTONE.

EXIT: The most important hidden cost is...

5 minutes

As a closing activity for this sequence of lessons, students will each share out what they believe is the most important "hidden cost" of the industrial food system. Is it distance traveled?  Is it carbon footprint?  Is it fossil fuel cost?  Is it accessibility?  This closing ritual allows students to sum up learning from this sequence.  It also anticipates the impact assessment process that will be the focus of the next lesson.  At the conclusion of this three lesson sequence, at minimum students should be able to identify carbon dioxide and energy consumption as important hidden costs of the industrial food system.  As such, although informal, this EXIT activity is essentially a summative assessment of student learning.  Can students identify the hidden costs of the industrial food system?  Can students provide evidence that these costs are hidden?  Can they calculate this costs?  Do they understand the strengths and weaknesses of the calculations of hidden costs?  Can students provide evidence that the price of food may not fully represent the total cost of food?