FIELD STUDY: Community Food Survey and Aquaponics (2 of 3)

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In this full day field research experience, students will be able to 1) collect food data from multiple sites within the local neighborhood; 2) explain how an aquaponics farm functions; and 3) describe how local food solutions such as aquaponics farms meet community needs.

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: Organizing a full day trip

In the previous lesson, students became familiar with the food desert concept and began to evaluate the Sunset Park neighborhood as a possible food desert.  In this "lesson," students ditch the computers and text-based conversations and get out in the community to conduct fieldwork.  First, students engage in a community food survey; they visit restaurants, bodegas, and supermarkets and attempt to develop a deeper understanding of the food system in their community.  Next, students visit an working aquaponics farm.  The goal of this excursion is to explore a community-based solution to problems created by the mostly industrial food system that permeates New York City.  

This is a full day trip that will require many hours of teacher planning.  Below are some important point to keep in mind.

How do I start planning?

This field research experience is an opportunity for students to become familiar with the food system of the local urban community.    

As such, a teacher's first step should be to map the food resources in the community.  Where are the supermarkets, bodegas, farmers markets, fast food establishments, and community farms?  How far are these locations from the school?  What would be the most efficient route to take to visit all of these locations in a two to three hour period?  

A second step is to identify intended "field research sites" (a specific supermarket, for example) and communicate with management.  What do you intend to do at this site?  How many students will attend?  How will you ensure that students do not interfere with customers?  Some business may not be receptive; teachers should be prepared to discuss plans with multiple sites.

A third step is to identify and communicate with local organizations that exist as alternatives to the industrial food system.  Is there a farmers market that students can tour?  Is there a local rooftop farm?  Is there an aquaponics system nearby?

Now that I have field research sites, how do I manage logistics for a trip?

Trip management within a school can be a complex, sometimes frustrating process. Here is a checklist of tasks that need to be completed at my specific school site. Obviously, other schools will have different requirements.  However, most of these tasks will need to be regardless of school type.  For teachers that are not in the habit of leaving the classroom, this outline captures the detailed, often time-consuming work that goes into every fieldwork experience.  While some schools allow for a standing fieldwork permission system that covers the entire year, there is no shortcut for completing all of this administrative work.  Planning fieldwork takes time and forethought.  Identifying a few potential fieldwork experiences at the beginning of the year, planning these with the school year calendar, and sharing these potential fieldwork experiences with administration as soon as possible are highly recommended teacher moves.

Checklist of fieldwork planning tasks to be completed by the teacher:

  • Submit necessary paperwork
    • To the principal (FOUR weeks in advance):
      • Trip plan 
      • Itinerary
        • Schedule of activities
        • Number of students
        • Chaperone list (check regulations for required student-adult ratio)
        • Plan for students not attending trip (if necessary)
    • To the principal' secretary (ONE week in advance):
      • Coverage request form
      • Transportation request form if taking subway: must obtain from Assistant Principal of Organization
    • To kitchen (at least TWO weeks in advance):
      • Lunch request form 
    • To students (at least ONE week in advance):
      • Permission slips (regular or extended day)
    • To community leader (within ONE week of trip):
      • Invoices/purchases orders for payment (if necessary)
  • Communicate trip details to affected staff
    • If students will not be attending regularly scheduled classes because of the trip, notify the affected staff members and gather any work for students to complete in lieu of attending class that day.
  • Collect student permission slips from each attending student
    • Verbal permission from parents is not acceptable.
  • Keep records of attendance on the day of the trip and submit a copy to the community aide
    • You may submit permission slips and an attendance roster to the community aide, but keep one copy of attendance records yourself.
  • Have contact information of community leader in case of emergency 


FIELD RESOURCE: Community Food Survey and Aquaponics

The attached resource was created from curriculum developed by Solar One as well as the Oko Farms website.  It should be modified to suit the needs of individual students or classes as well as the resources available within local communities.  The activities in this guide can be completed over many days, but for planning purposes, it is likely easiest to complete everywhere in a single day.  The recommended schedule for this work is to conduct the food survey in the morning and the farm tour in the afternoon.  Teachers should plan for a FULL DAY in the field. 

Management of fieldwork can be scary.  Students are not confined to a class and are exploring their interests in the real world.  Below are a few ideas that came up during this trip.

Management tips for community food survey:

Fast food:  Large groups will be disruptive to businesses, especially during breakfast service. Consider choosing two or three fast food sites close to each other and rotating student groups at set time intervals.  This will require coordination with trusted chaperones.

Restaurants:  This was the most difficult site to manage as students' presence was disruptive to consumers.  Taking a few paper menus from targeted restaurants and analyzing these menus later is a better idea.

Food Costs:  This task should be complete with "Fresh fruit availability."  Teachers are highly encouraged to know the exact location of products in a store before the food survey.  Students may become extremely frustrated if they have to hunt for food items that they may not actually know.  For example, many of my students were not able to find kale or lentils because they did not know these food items.

Fresh fruit availability:  Ideally students will visit each of the type of store described (corner store, neighborhood market, specialty store, supermarket) and share information with each other.  All store types may not be available, or, for management purposes, it will be necessary to have all students conducting research in the same store.  For my classes, for instance, students all conducted research in a local supermarket.  However, student groups were purposefully placed in different sections of the market and rotated at timed intervals so as not to disrupt the consumer experience of actual supermarket patrons.

Management tips for farm tour:

The most difficult part of the farm tour was actually the transportation.  Oko Farms is located in Bushwick, an area unknown to many students.  Additionally, arrival at the farm required a 15 minute walk.  Preparing students for this trip with maps and a virtual walking tour will quell their anxiety.  Otherwise, the farm tour is generally a controlled, "teacher-centered" experience.  I have planned three different farm tours as an educator, and each was a tightly planned learning experiences led by farm staff.  The success of this tour, then, depends largely on the capacity of the hosting farm staff.  Teachers should learn as much as possible about the planned activities for the day before committing to a farm tour.  Any tour that is simply a "walk and talk" is generally less valuable than a farm tour that allows students to interact with farmers, crops, and processes.

ORIENTATION: What will we do during our field study?

20 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

This is an orientation activity for the day.  Students review a proposed walking route of the Sunset Park neighborhood and make any adjustments necessary.  Students also review the agenda for an aquaponics farm tour in Brooklyn. Finally, students form small groups and learn about expectations for the different parts of the community food survey and farm tour.  Which fast food restaurants will my group visit?  How will my group move through the supermarket?  How should I behave at the farm? By the end of this activity, students should feel comfortable with the schedule and planned learning activities for the day.  The teacher should feel that all students understand the processes and products for the day. 

What will the students do?

Students begin by annotating an activity guide for the field study.  What is confusing?  What will we do at each location?  Next, students will review this map of proposed locations for the community food survey.  Do I know where all of these places are?  Do I have new suggestions? Next, students will summarize this video.  What is aquaponics?  Why are we going on this farm tour?  Finally, students will review their understanding with the teacher through a whole group debrief.

What will the teacher do?

This is an orientation activity.  The most important teacher move is to communicate clearly and address students' anxiety.  Are my students comfortable with public transportation?  What is the right amount of autonomy that will allow my students to feel self-directed but supported?  Do my students know all of the items on the food list?  Teachers should aim to maximize excitement and minimize anxiety.  This will happen when students know exactly what they are expected to do and when they feel that the teacher understands exactly what parts of the fieldwork experience are unknown to most students.

EXTEND: Community Food Survey and Aquaponics Farm Tour

360 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Students gather food data from the neighborhood and also learn about a local solution to the problems associated with an industrial food distribution system.  The teacher supports students' deeper understanding of the food resources in their community and solutions that address unequal access to essential food resources.  Students should finish this fieldwork with a clearer understanding of Sunset Park's food resources as well as ideas for improvement.  This activity is not meant to find evidence for or against the idea that Sunset Park is a food desert.  Rather, the goal is to explore existing food resources, and to develop ideas to improve areas of deficiency.


  • Travel time for this activity is approximately 1.5 hours.
  • Students have lunch for approximately 30 minutes before the farm tour.

What will the students do?

Part 1: Community Food Survey

Time to complete: approximately 2.5 hours.

For the first part of this field study activity, students will collect data from the following categories:

  • Fast Food - Assess and compare the quality, availability and cost of food at local fast food establishments.

  • Restaurants – Assess and compare the quality, availability and cost of food at local restaurants.

  • Food Costs – Assess and compare food prices (both whole and processed) at various food establishments.

  • Fresh Food Availability – Assess and compare the availability and quality of fresh fruits and vegetables in the community.

Part 2: Aquaponics Farm Tour

Time to complete: approximately 2 hours. 

For the second part of this field study activity, students will take a hands-on tour of Oko farms, a small aquaponics agricultural business in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Oko Farms describes this experience as follows:

Learn about all of the different plants and aquatic animals that live on the farm and how they support each other in a symbiotic relationship. Our guided tour will introduce participants to aquaponics and all of the various biological components that make up our farm. Participants will also take an up close look at the various hardware that support the well-being of our plants and animals.

What will the teacher do?

During both field experiences, my primary role is to keep students focused on tasks, clarify misconceptions, and push students thinking.  One important teacher move to make before this trip is to develop highly functional groups of no more than five students.  At minimum I designate a group facilitator and materials collector.  The facilitator communicates with me and the materials collector ensures that all students have materials and that all spaces are kept clean.  Another important teacher move is to let students "see what they see."  There is a debrief built into this lesson sequence, so not every student needs to perfectly understand every aspect of this fieldwork activity.  The "data analysis" will come later.  Students will have an opportunity to make meaning of this experience then.