DESIGN CHALLENGE: Food labels (1 of 2)

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Students will be able to 1) describe key features of sustainable agriculture; 2) and identify features to add to the current food label that more accurately reflect the costs of food production.

Big Idea

The current food label describes the ingredients and nutritional content of food. How might we redesign the current food label to more accurately capture the total impact of modern food production, especially environmental costs?

FRAME: Why food labels?

In 2014, the United States Food and Drug and Administration proposed a redesign of food labels. Here is an overview of this work.  While updated, this new design still does not communicate the negative externalities of our modern food system. What are the energy inputs?  What are the greenhouse gas outputs? What is the overall cost to the environment?  What is the cost to public health?  In the previous lesson, students articulated solution ideas to problems of the food system in the Sunset Park community.  A popular idea articulated in every class of students was food label redesign.  Perhaps if more people understand the food in their community better, they are more likely to want a different food system.

In this two lesson DESIGN CHALLENGE, students build on their field study work to prototype a food label that includes the invisible costs of our food system.  The goal of this design challenge is to redesign the current food label so that it effectively nudges human food consumption habits towards sustainable food systems.  As the economic argument runs, when demand changes, so too will supply.  Students have just explored the idea that even given effective solutions, human habits are resistant change.  Might better food labels crack such resistance? 

In this first lesson, students focus on the initial parts of the engineering design thinking cycle. Students examine how food labels negatively impact people, define problems with current food labels, and ideate solutions.  Students will continue this work in the next lesson when they will develop prototypes, test these prototypes with a public audience, and iterate on their designs.

These activities requires that students apply concepts from engineering design-thinking, citizen science, environmental justice concepts, human population growth, and food systems to generate effective solutions.  As such, the food label redesign cuts across multiple units and challenges students to engage in higher-order synthesis and evaluation while applying skills and concepts to a novel real-world problem.  It is a first stab at designing a solution to the environmental impacts of our food system.  The CAPSTONE project for this unit will iterate on this DESIGN CHALLENGE. By the end of this DESIGN CHALLENGE, successful students will have met these objectives:

  1. describe key features of sustainable agriculture
  2. identify features to add to the current food label that more accurately reflect the costs of food production
  3. develop a redesigned food label utilizing design elements that surface the normally hidden costs of modern food production
  4. present redesigned food labels to peers
  5. facilitate discussion about how redesigned food labels might be used in the real world
  6. and select an actionable idea to propose to the community.
RESOURCES NOTE:  This lesson sequence works best with the following:
  • Food labels from commonly consumed student foods (chips, candy, and soda work well)
  • Computers for the EXPLORE section (1:1 works best, but this will work with enough computers for each group)
  • Posters of redesign food labels (I used a variation of this label from a food label redesign article in the New York Times)

ENGAGE: Sustainable agriculture overview

15 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Students learn about some real-world examples of sustainable farming and brainstorm ideas for how to raise awareness about sustainable farming practices.  Teachers gather information about students baseline knowledge of sustainability through formative assessment.  By the end of this section students should be able to articulate at least THREE practices of sustainable agriculture and students should be able to explain why these practices are considered to be sustainable.

What will the students do?

Students will form groups and develop flash publications of no more than ONE MINUTE about one of the following examples of sustainable farming:

For each presentation, groups answer the following two questions:

  1. What are the problems that sustainable farming attempts to solve?  
  2. What is a technique featured that is considered to be a sustainable practice?
  3. Why is this practice considered to be sustainable? 

Presentations should begin with a description of the clip viewed and then answers to each of these questions.  Listening students should capture ideas that answer each question from each group. Once all groups have presented there will be a short whole class discussion to norm understanding of each question; this is the EXPLORE activity.

What will the teacher do?

First the teacher frames this lesson sequence by explaining the design challenge.  In our previous lesson, many students articulated the idea that perhaps people do not want to change the food system because they do not understand it.  Perhaps, then, if we redesign food labels so that they more accurately capture the total cost of food, including public health and environmental costs, more people would be interested in changing the food system in Sunset Park.  Next, the teacher will assist with developing presentations only when absolutely necessary.  The more important role for the teacher to take is to gather data about student misconceptions. What problems do students think sustainable agricultural practices attempt to solve?  What do students’ misunderstandings reveal about their mental schema of industrial food systems and solutions to problems created by this system?  As this DESIGN CHALLENGE is the middle of the unit, this lesson sequence is an important opportunity for a teacher to take stock of students' competencies and reteach any material that is not yet mastered.

EXPLORE: Alternative food label designs

25 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Students synthesize understanding of presentations through a teacher-facilitated debrief discussion and also explore one idea that might nudge human behavior towards more sustainable food consumption: a redesigned food label.  The teacher assists students in their understanding of various types of food labels and pushes students to think about why design choices were made.  By the end of this section students should be able to explain different design choices that could be made in food label design and they should be able to connect this design choices to sustainability practices.  How does food label look that accurately conveys information about the environmental cost of food?

What will the students do?

Students will first discuss their understanding of the ENGAGE activity through small group and then whole class discussion.  What are the key features of sustainable agricultural practices?  How do sustainable agricultural practices benefit human and environmental health?   How can we get more people to support sustainable food systems?

Next, students will examine prototypes of food label redesigns.  They will start with the current FDA food label, and then analyze a variety of food labels.  Here are links to these labels:

For each label, students will summarize what the label communicates, and identify the best features of the label and the worst features of the label by connecting the information a design features communicates to ideas about sustainable agricultural practices.  Each best and worst features should be explained as a claim with evidence.  

Finally, students will identify a “best in class” prototype of a redesigned food label that they think would be most likely to influence human behavior.  What information should a food label display to actually push humans to make different choices and advocate for change?


  • Students that are not familiar with the FDA food label will benefit from a small group mini-lesson.  I have had success usign this video and student-generated food labels from candy, bags of chips, or drinks.
  • For students that struggle with this activity, see the REFLECTION for another approach.

What will the teacher do?

The teacher will primarily assist with students’ interpretation of food labels.  Most students are very familiar with the current FDA food label from their previous Living Environment (introductory biology in New York State) and Health coursework, but may require additional support.  The key teacher move in this section is to encourage students to articulate the connection between a food label feature and a sustainability practice.  Many students will identify a color scheme, font, or icon system as "best" features.  While aesthetics are important, they are not appropriate features to highlight for this lesson.

EXPLAIN: What does my food label communicate?

12 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Students share out their favorite food label and review the food label from the New York Times with the teacher. The teacher formatively assesses students understanding of the components of a food label and highlights features that a redesigned food label might have.  By the end of this section, students should have at least ONE example of a new food label feature that communicates information about the environmental impact of a food product.

What will the students do?

Student groups show the class their favorite food label and describe what it communicates as well as its best and worst features.  Students also explain how they think this label meets the design challenge of nudging consumers towards a more sustainable food system.  Students then review an example of a redesigned food label through a teacher-centered presentation and subsequent open discussion.

What will the teacher do?

The teacher first facilitates the group share and then reviews the New York Times example.  In this review, the purpose is to explicitly explain the differences between this label and the traditional FDA label.  What information is missing from current food labeling in the United States?  Why might it be important to communicate additional information to consumers?

The example from the New York Times work very well for this activity because it contains categories that capture the total impact of food.  Of particular importance is the welfare category: "A measure of the impact of the food’s production on the overall welfare of everything involved: laborers, animals, land, water, air, etc. This rating also accounts for carbon footprint and chemical (pesticide, for example) and drug (like antibiotic) residues." In reviewing this redesigned food label, I would spend most of my time with the welfare category.  This is the category that effectively "internalizes the negative externalities" of the industrial food system.  Does this food rely on fossil fuels?  What is the carbon footprint of this food?  How does the food get to consumers?  Are farms that produce this food reliant on toxic chemicals?  

After reviewing this label, I facilitate a discussion of how we might assess the welfare of food with our own food labels.  This is a natural extension of work completed for the Have Food, Will Travel lessons, the Industry City IMPACT ASSESSMENT work, and the just completed FIELD STUDY. Students have experience with this kind of analysis and should able to supply ideas for how to document the welfare of food, especially given the recent community food survey experience. Any specific, community-based recommendations are extremely valuable and should be encouraged.  This DESIGN CHALLENGE exists to create change within the Sunset Park community.  Students should not feel that they need to come up with ideas that work for all food labels.  Rather, they should feel empowered to consider ideas that might only work locally. 

NOTE: For a preview of student work samples for this challenge, see this link to the next lesson.

EXIT: what you can't see can hurt you!

3 minutes

What is the purpose of this EXIT?

Students each share out one information category that should be added to a redesigned food label that is currently missing from the FDA label.  The teacher records these ideas for the “design lab” to take place during the next lesson.  

What were popular ideas during this activity?

From this share, students cited a wide range of possible additions.  These included:

  • coal use
  • oil use
  • social media score (which groups in the United States "like" this food)
  • taste
  • type of farm that produces this food
  • distance traveled
  • working conditions for farmers
  • local alternatives available
  • results of blind taste tests comparing food to alternatives
  • biodegradability
  • country of origin