FIELD STUDY: Community Food Survey and Aquaponics (1 of 3)

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Students will be able to 1) construct a map of known food resources in Sunset Park; 2) explain the concept of a food desert; and 3) assess the local Sunset Park community against criteria of a food desert.

Big Idea

Food deserts are a persistent feature of many urban environments. How might we interact with our local community in order to develop real-world solutions that address the problems created by food deserts?

FRAME: Food deserts and field study

Opportunities for authentic fieldwork in New York City are everywhere.  The American Museum of Natural History, the Bronx Zoo, the Lower East Side Ecology Center, the Brooklyn Aquarium, Jamaica Bay, Solar One, the Brooklyn Botanical Garden--these are just a few of the many organizations that promote and support field experiences within a dense urban environment. Students' participation in the Billion Oyster Project is one example of the types of authentic scientific research opportunities possible.

Unfortunately, time, resource limitations, and students' underdeveloped research skillsets often limit fieldwork opportunities.  Of these factors, time is likely to be the most constraining.  The Billion Oyster Project fieldwork required about 10 hours of additional teacher time. Each field work experience is its own project management challenge; developing a curriculum with frequent fieldwork experiences will require a substantial time investment. Such experiences are simply not realistic for many teachers.  Even for educators that are able to invest required time, fieldwork may not fit with the scheduling constraints of many schools.

This sequence of “field study” lessons is an attempt to hack these limitations.  Students conduct fieldwork in the neighborhood of the school community and use simple tools and observational frameworks.  While there is planning time involved, these lessons required only about three hours of additional preparation.  

Most importantly, this type of fieldwork is not an exotic experience.  The field is literally the neighborhood in which students live.  These lessons assume that students “funds of knowledge” (essentially students’ personal backgrounds) are the central component of effective learning experiences.   Using the lived neighborhood as a site of legitimate scientific inquiry is a powerful way to embed the skills and concepts of this course into students' daily lives while reducing the time investment of the classroom teacher. 

In these lessons, students will have an opportunity to explore the concept of food deserts as well as high-impact solutions to the environmental and public health costs of the industrial food system. First students will explore the concept of food deserts and conduct a neighborhood food survey of local food retailers.  In this exercise students will consider the idea that our current food system does not promote environmental justice; they will also consider the idea that one of the benefits of gentrification may be improved access to high quality food.  Students will then visit an aquaponics farm in Bushwick to gain a firsthand understanding of how small-scale local farms address some of the many problems of food distribution and availability in urban environments.  Finally, students will debrief this experience and consider food deserts as a "solution oasis." 

In this first lesson, students will initially develop food maps of their neighborhood that reflect their mental models. Students then develop conceptual understanding of food deserts.  Finally, students apply this concept to the Sunset Park neighborhood.  How does our neighborhood reflect hidden costs of an industrial food system?  How might gentrification offer a hidden benefit?

By the end of this FIELD STUDY, students will have met the following objectives:

  1. construct a map of known food resources in Sunset Park
  2. explain the concept of a food desert
  3. assess the local Sunset Park community against criteria of a food desert.
  4. collect food data from multiple sites within the local neighborhood
  5. explain how an aquaponics farm functions
  6. describe how local food solutions such as aquaponics farms meet community needs.
  7. create an annotated map of food availability and sustainable food production practices in Sunset Park
  8. develop solution ideas to the problems posed by limited food resources in Sunset Park
  9. describe potential barriers to successful implementation of a sustainable food production program in Brooklyn.


  • The first set of attached resources might be useful as a "funds of knowledge" primer for interested educators.  
  • The second set of attached resources will provide deeper understanding of the food desert and food justice concepts explored in this lesson sequence.
  • Finally, educators interested in how students will explore the food deserts concept through fieldwork will want to see the fieldwork activity guide.

ENGAGE: What is our food map?

15 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Students begin to consider the accessibility of healthy and environmentally sustainable food in their neighborhood.  Teachers will learn about students’ awareness of neighborhood food resources as well as food consumption patterns. Through mapping and discussion, students and teachers are able to together define the "field" to be studied.  

What will the students do?

Students draw individual food maps of the Sunset Park neighborhood.  These maps represent responses to the following guiding questions:

  • Where do you buy your food?  
  • What types of food are available in this area?  
  • What type of food do you buy?

Students may not use any research resources and are free to use any labeling system. If students need assistance with map labeling, the "Food Miles Lab" from the "Have Food, Will Travel" lesson sequence might be used as a scaffold.  Students that finish quickly should attempt to describe the environmental impact of mapped food resources by using the carbon footprint analysis from the “Have Food, Will Travel” lesson sequence.

When all students in a group have completed maps, student will share maps with each other and the group will develop a composite map to share with the class. One member of each group will share the composite map for the group.  This sharing will include answers to the three guiding questions.  Finally, the whole class will debrief this activity and agree to a composite class map.

What will the teacher do?

The purpose of this exercise is not to draw a perfectly accurate map.  Even so, many students will fret over the details.  As such, the primary teacher move for this activity is redirect students' attention.  Focusing on the guiding questions is more important than drawing a beautiful map.

Additionally, the teacher will facilitate a whole class discussion of shared maps in order to define the "field" to be studied during the next lesson.  What features of these maps do we all seem to agree should be on our food map of Sunset Park?  What types of food should be on our map?  What should we leave out? By the end of this activity, students have a working knowledge of the distribution of food resources throughout Sunset Park, the food consumption patterns of the class, and the approximate boundaries of the area of food resources within Sunset Park.

What will these maps look like?

Here is a digital map of food resources in the Sunset Park neighborhood.  Composite maps from class groups included most of the restaurants and stores along 4th and 5th Avenues.  Student groups explained that most food purchases come from bodegas and fast food restaurants in this map.  Only two student groups in all classes labeled maps with grocery stores.  This labeling reflected students' food purchases; most purchased mostly convenience food.

EXPLORE: Are there food deserts in New York City?

25 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Students learn about the concept of food deserts and explore a map of the New York City area that locates local food deserts.  The teacher is able to check for student understanding of the food desert concept and support students’ ability to locate food deserts on a map.  This activity builds on previous work with maps in this course.  For a refresher, see this lesson sequence.  To be successful, students should be able to interpret maps as arguments supported by visualized data.  If students do not possess this skill, more extensive teacher-centered modeling of how to interpret maps will be required.

What will the students do?

Students will read and annotate this article from Scientific American and then research Brooklyn neighborhoods from this map developed by the United States Department of Agriculture and this map from the Brooklyn Food Coalition.

Article annotation:  First students will annotate the article in groups based on a provided guiding question; different groups will have a unique guiding question.  Each group will then give a “flash publication” to the class of one minute or less that answers the question.  A "flash publication" is simply the term we use in this curriculum to signify an informal presentation of the results of some activity. (Here is the first use in this course.) It is used primarily to push students to communicate with each other about the in-process products that they have developed for a particular activity; it is also useful for a teacher as formative assessment. For this flash publication, groups may use visuals, but this is not a requirement.  The only constraint is that the speaker for the ENGAGE activity may not speak again.  Some examples of guiding questions might include:

  • What is a food desert?

  • Why did citizens begin to map food access in Brooklyn?

  • What is the relationship between low-income communities and food deserts?

  • Why might it be useful to create food maps?

Maps: Second, students will examine this map to identify regions in and around New York City that qualify as food deserts.  Groups will write locations names and locations qualities (population, demographics, income, education, public health statistics, and so on) on the whiteboard at the front of the room. Third, students will examine this map to understand one method for classifying stores that sell food products (green, blue, and red dots).  They will then use this classification system to identify one blue, one red, and one green store in the Sunset Park neighborhood. Student groups will also record this information on the whiteboard at the front of the room.  If possible, a local area map projected onto the whiteboard will allow student groups to create a whole class annotated map.  The teacher can then take a picture of this map for public display and future use, or build a digital map using a mapping engine.  See the "Map Tutorial" for help with this task. Finally, students discuss their observations and inferences.  What kind of information does this map have?  What do you think this information means?  What might we do to gather more information about food resources in Sunset Park?

What will the teacher do?

The teacher supports students' understanding of the article and maps.  The teacher also facilitates a whole class discussion of guiding questions based on the information that student groups have found.  By the end of this activity, students should have a basic understanding of the food desert concept and the demographics of local communities.  Students should also be able to identify areas in the Sunset Park community that house different types of food resources.  Finally, students should be able to explain some potential next steps.  "Surveys" and "comparing menus" we popular next steps in whole group discussions.

RESOURCE NOTE:  The attached document contains a number of visualized data presentations that might be used instead of the two online versions in this document. These maps focus more on issues of food insecurity, but may be easier for students to interpret; these types of maps might also be provided as supplements for this activity.


EXPLAIN: What is a food desert?

10 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

The whole class will synthesize collected information from the EXPLORE activity through a moderated whole class discussion.  By the end of this discussion activity, all students should be able to define a food desert and use evidence to classify Sunset Park as a food desert or not a food desert.  Students might also revisit themes in the previous IMPACT ASSESSMENT lessons to make connections between gentrification and food deserts.  There are hidden costs of community development.  Might there also be hidden benefits?

What will the students do?

From the information gathered, students will be able to answer the following:

  • What are the key characteristics of a food desert?
  • What are the types of retail food stores in Sunset Park?
  • Is Sunset Park a food desert?
  • Is gentrification a solution to the problems caused by food deserts?

First, all students will discuss each question in groups; then the whole class participates in a discussion.  As ideas develop, student recorders will capture information on posters to display in the class.  Recorders should be assigned or chosen by groups before the discussion begins. 

Overall, here are common themes that emerged from discussions:

  • Sunset Park only has one "real" grocery store
  • It is hard to walk around the neighborhood so the grocery store is not easy to get to
  • There are bodegas on every block
  • Food deserts are places that do not sell healthy food
  • Fast food restaurants are on the main streets; the grocery store is not
  • Sunset Park is sort of a food desert; there is healthy food available, but not many residents know about where to get it
  • Industry City might damage the environment but it brings us better food

What will the teacher do?

The teacher’s goal is to elicit an understanding of the food desert concept from the class.  To do this effectively, all claims must include evidence.  My primary move was to probe students’ use of evidence and to challenge students with counterclaims based on evidence provided.  The most important teacher move to make, then, is to reference students' work from the EXPLORE activity.  What did each group claim?  What was the evidence used to support these claims?  What other interpretations of this evidence might be possible? The teacher may also want to project a digital map of food resources in the neighborhood to use as evidence for or against the idea that Sunset Park is a food desert.

EXIT: Is Sunset Park a food desert?

5 minutes

In preparation for a the neighborhood food survey, students are asked to read this overview of food deserts from the Food Empowerment Project and write a personal response.  Do you think that Sunset Park is a food desert?  Why or why not?  Use evidence from this article and your personal lives.  Students begin this reading in class so that they may ask for any assistance that might be needed.  Student will update this reflection once they complete the activities in the next two lessons.  The big idea of this lesson sequence is that food deserts are a feature of urban life that can be changed.  This change, however, will only come from invested citizens capable of producing evidence-based claims about their neighborhoods.  As such, students will benefit the most from the community food survey and aquaponics farm tour if they have this big picture perspective in mind.