There’s No Business Like Food Business

Students explore the secretive journey from farm to table

By Michi Thacker

Illustrator: Michael Duffy

Illustration: Michael Duffy

Food plays an important role in the curriculum at our school, an alternative public elementary school in Olympia, Wash., which enrolls just under 300 students. We have a large organic garden and greenhouse, and during the school year, our students dig, plant, weed, water, compost, harvest, and cook fresh produce. All classrooms use the garden to help teach measuring, graphing, and weighing. And we all work together to plan and prepare for a yearly harvest festival.

Three years ago, our school piloted a new lunch program for our school district. After parents and students ap-proached our district’s food services supervisor, the district started working with local farmers to offer organic produce and non-meat protein choices. It made sense to begin with our school, as students were already used to eating fresh organic produce from our garden. After the changes succeeded at our school, the district expanded the program and contained costs by eliminating sugary desserts and other processed foods. The number of children choosing fresh fruits and vegetables has gone up by 50 percent, and the number of children buying lunch at school has gone up significantly. The district now supports eight regional farms.

Inspired by reading two provocative essays, “The Oil We Eat,” by Richard Manning, and “Lily’s Chickens,” by Barbara Kingsolver, (see sidebar, page 32), I decided to take our learning about food a little deeper. Our class began investigating food and where it really comes from. In a multiage classroom of 3rd and 4th graders, my goal was to increase children’s understanding of where our food comes from by looking at individual food products and their ingredients to find out how far they traveled from farm to factory to store shelves. In the process we would look at food costs, the use of fertilizers and pesticides, who was harvesting and processing the foods, and ultimately, the benefits and costs of local vs. non-local, and organic vs. non-organic foods.

We are privileged to have our own school garden and to have access to a variety of locally grown, organic produce in our lunches; but I wanted my students to have a deeper understanding of why we garden organically at our school, and why we would choose to make these changes in our lunch program. Because many families cannot afford or do not choose to buy local and organic food, I wanted children to be able to explore the issues without feeling guilt or shame that their families were not making the same choices.

I began our study with the question “Where does our food come from?” Children’s responses were predictable: “The store,” “farms,” “my garden,” “cows,” “a factory.” After our initial brainstorm, I explained that I would like for us to explore the question a little more, and that we would take a field trip to a local grocery store to begin our research. I had chosen a store where they would find a diverse selection of foods, including some organic and natural foods. I invited children to think of a food that they would like to research. They could choose any food on the shelf; my only criterion was that the list be diverse (no repeats) with a variety of brands. Children raised their hands to share their ideas as I listed them on a large piece of newsprint. The list included well-known packaged brand-name items like Kraft macaroni and cheese, Gatorade, Nancy’s yogurt, Pace salsa, and Diane’s tortillas, as well as various organic and non-organic fresh fruits and vegetables.

Before our field trip, I asked the children what questions we would need to ask to find out exactly where our food items had come from, and we generated a list on another piece of newsprint. Using a combination of their questions and mine, I put together a data-gathering sheet and a “Food Product Re-search” sheet.

The Field Trip

On the day of the field trip, I explained to the students and adults who joined us: “Your task is to find as much contact information about your product as possible. Record everything you can find on the label or package, and be sure to pay attention to accuracy when you copy down information.” I distributed clipboards, pencils, and data-gathering sheets. Because several parents joined us, I was able to assign a small group to each adult. The groups enthusiastically traveled together down the aisles, hunting for their items, pulling them from the shelves, helping each other inspect the boxes and packages for the critical information, and diligently recording it.

They listed brand names, parent companies if applicable, distributors, and any other potential contact information they could get from the labeling on their food items — phone numbers, addresses, web or email addresses. A few students needed to ask the store manager for additional help to find information about farms and distributors for the fresh produce. (Fortunately, the manager was welcoming and friendly, considering that I did not have the forethought to alert him ahead of time.)

After gathering the initial contact information, we returned to school and I assigned a research project. I ex-plained to the class that the goal was to find out where our food had come from and how far our food had traveled from farms to factories to store. I gave students a list of questions about their chosen products to try to answer when they contacted the products’ manufacturer. (While I didn’t expect that each of them would be able to find answers to all of the questions, I wanted them to ask them all in order to get as much detail as possible.) They asked the following questions:

  • Where was your product made?
  • What are the ingredients of your product?
  • Where did each of these ingredients come from?
  • Who harvested the fruits and vegetables that were used in your product? Where were they harvested?
  • What company shipped the different ingredients to the factory and the final product to the shelves?

It was clear that this research project was going to require too much assistance to be completed at school, so I assigned the project as homework. I included a note to parents on the homework sheet: “Parents — please work on this research together with your child! Even if your child is capable of making the phone calls, they may come across people who do not take their questions seriously. Also, if you do not have Internet access at home, please let me know so that we can arrange for some help at school.”

I gave students two weeks to complete their research to make sure that parents could find time to work with them to finish it. (Phoning can be complicated with time zones and children in school the majority of the day.) I had already introduced this project to parents at our first parent meeting, so most of them had had opportunities to ask questions, and meeting notes went home to those who didn’t attend. I knew this was a lot to ask of parents, but parent involvement is embedded in our school’s philosophy. Since parents choose the food children eat, I hoped that parents and children working side by side might encourage some interesting discussion at home. What I didn’t know was how truly difficult the assignment would be.

We started mapping our information right away with the initial information that children gathered at the grocery store. We had two large maps on the wall of our classroom, one of the United States and the other of the world. Each child wrote the name of his or her food item on a Post-It note. I helped children find and mark the places on the map where the product companies were located. Each time a student brought in new information about the source of an ingredient or location of a farm, distributor, or other company, we would add a Post-It to one of the maps (we used the world map for anything from outside the United States). I explained that we would be looking at how far our food had traveled and thinking about the resources used in transporting foods.

I also made a large chart to go on the wall with each child’s name, the name of his/her product, and several columns where they could record the answers to our research questions.

While the students were working at home on their research, we took a field trip to Common Ground, a local organic farm that practices community supported agriculture (CSA), a system in which participants buy a share of the farm’s produce and receive a weekly box of seasonal vegetables and herbs. (Some CSA farms also provide meat, cheese, flowers, or fruits to their members.) The owners of the farm asked children what they knew about organic farming, explained their system to students, and took them on a tour. Many of the students were familiar with CSAs as their families had participated in them. The farmers explained why they farmed organically and why buying and eating locally benefits small farmers. Then students formed a “bucket brigade” line and heartily joined in the effort to load boxes of produce for delivery.

Serendipitously, at home I discovered a short piece titled “Why it’s a good idea to eat certified organic foods” printed on the inside of a box of Nature’s Path cereal. I made copies and assigned children to work in small groups, reading and discussing the text. From this and other readings (see sidebar, page 32) we learned about nutrients in the soil, soil erosion, and some of the consequences of short and long-term use of pesticides and fertilizers.

Secretive Corporations

As children began to bring in and share their information, we were perplexed and stunned to find that most of the companies refused to give us the information we were looking for. Kraft Foods responded to one child by email, “As much as we’d like to help you, the information you are seeking is considered confidential. We hope you can understand our position. We’d be glad to share with you a brief history of one of our signature brands.”

Children continued to hear back from other companies (Gatorade, Post, Frito Lay, Campbell’s) that the information was “classified information,” “confidential,” or “not available.” Sometimes a company gave the name or location of a distributor, but said it was “not allowed” to tell where the ingredients came from. Several corporations never responded to emails or phone calls. Children were able to track each product back to its parent company, but often that was the company whose information was printed on the box or package, and usually it wasn’t the place where the product was manufactured. Information about individual ingredients — names of farms where they were grown and harvested, names of factories, and so on — were “unavailable.” Sometimes companies gave locations, but no names.

Each time we gathered together to share information, I asked children why it might be that some companies wouldn’t share basic information about what we were eating. Students were, for the most part, stumped. Eventually one of the children had an answer: The concern was that the information might be given to a competitor. The implication was that we were spies! I asked the students why passing on information about sources of food might be a problem. They speculated that maybe there was something about the food that wasn’t good for them. One child suggested that companies might not want us to know if they use genetically modified organisms (GMOs). While I had some ideas of my own about the reasons for this secrecy, I wanted children to sit with the question. The issue was keeping them engaged and they were curious about other children’s findings.

Not every company refused to give us information. Most of the companies that willingly shared (and were the friendliest and most welcoming to children) were small businesses, regional farmers, and/or growers of organic produce. Some sent us information packets. Nancy Van Brasch Hamren (of Nancy’s yogurt) from Springfield Creamery in Eugene, Ore., told her student-researcher the name of the farm their milk came from and where all of the other ingredients of their yogurt came from. We learned that their vanilla came from Madagascar, farther than any other food item we were able to track.

When all students’ information had been recorded on our chart, I pointed out which companies were smaller farms and businesses and asked them why they thought they might be more willing to share information. Some thought that maybe they had nothing to hide. Others suggested that the food might be healthier. I explained that small businesses were owned by a single person or a few people who worked closer to or even directly with planters and harvesters, rather than large corporations whose CEOs were far from the workers in the fields and whose focus was primarily on profit. I explained that that didn’t necessarily guarantee that the food was healthier, but at least the owners were more likely to be informed about the conditions and details of the farm, food, and work environment. The owners of companies that produced organic foods were likely to have a commitment to the health and environmental benefits of the food they produced.

On our map, the closest Post-It was in Oregon. None of our products had come from Washington State; many had come from the Midwest and the East Coast, and a few from overseas. While it was clear from our research that the food we eat travels long distances, we had been unsuccessful, for the most part, in tracing foods all the way back to farms. Still, even without all of the information, we were able to look at the map together and see the great distances many of the products had traveled. I estimated with students the mileage traveled for a few of the items. I asked them what other energy costs might be involved; for example, what kinds of things are done to preserve food. Students came up with the costs of processing, packaging, and refrigerating foods. I added that the farther a food item travels, the more gas is required and the longer the food items need refrigeration. We talked about how processing and packaging foods helps preserve them, but has additional environmental costs because of the process itself, as well as the plastic and paper used for packaging.

At about this time, a delegation of representatives from the U.S. Depart-ment of Agriculture visited our school to learn about our lunch program. Our principal had asked me if I would be willing to have them join us for a lesson and I agreed. With the visitors present, I decided to conclude our study by reflecting as a group on the reasons for the changes in the district’s lunch program — why we choose organic and locally grown foods.

I posted two large pieces of newsprint on the board. One had the question “Why buy local?” written on one side and “Why import foods?” on the other. The second had “Why buy organic?” on one side and “Why buy non-organic?” on the other. I asked children to reflect on their learning in addressing the questions one at a time. I recorded their thoughtful responses on the newsprint. We stopped occasionally to clarify or question the validity of student answers. Student responses to “Why buy local?” included the following:

  • Trucks don’t have to drive as far, so it costs less to transport and causes less pollution.
  • Food is fresher and less likely to rot.
  • Buying locally supports local farmers in our community.
  • Local foods cost less because they don’t have to be shipped as far. (We explored this and talked about why this may or may not be true. For example, workers get paid differently depending on where the food is coming from, but imported food has farther to travel.)
  • It is less likely to need pesticides because it isn’t stored for as long.
  • It tastes better because it is fresher.

And here were some of their responses to “Why import foods?”

  • Some things don’t grow well here. (We listed some examples: mangos, coconuts, vanilla, avocados.)
  • Some things aren’t available here year round.
  • Maybe it’s cheaper? (We revisited the comments above.)

To the question “Why buy organic?” students responded:

  • No pesticides are used; pesticides aren’t good for you. (When I asked “why,” a number of students responded with the following points.)
  • Pesticides kill good bugs too.
  • Pesticides kill everything in the soil: microorganisms, worms, nutrients, roots.
  • Pesticides are harmful to the people who harvest the food.
  • Pesticides pollute water.
  • Pesticides can lead to more erosion in the soil.

Another child said, “Organic food tastes better.” I asked if this was a fact or an opinion, and one student responded that it would taste better because it is fresher. Another responded that she knew because she eats organic food. Another child added that eating organic food is better for biodiversity because pesticides are not killing off different kinds of insects.

When I asked, “Why buy non-organic?” students agreed that non-organic food is often cheaper. Because I wanted children to be clear that there was not an expectation that all of their parents would start buying organic food, I added that I don’t always choose to buy organic for that reason, and that most people can’t afford to always buy organic. But I also shared that buying things in larger, bulk quantities sometimes makes organic food cheaper and creates less waste. Other students noted that non-organic food is easier to find, not all foods are available organically, and that food might look better if it didn’t have “bugs or bug holes.” It’s easier to ship, someone added, and doesn’t rot as fast, and GMOs naturally resist some pests.

I concluded our brainstorm discussion by summarizing students’ comments, adding that if our criteria in buying food were to be to live and eat more sustainably, it seemed clear that eating organic and closer to home made more sense.

Then children redirected their focus to our visitors from the USDA. I asked students to share about their research projects. Several spoke about how they had been unable to find the information they were looking for. I asked the delegation why we might have had such difficulty getting information about the food we eat. One of the representatives responded that many companies have confidentiality agreements with their providers, processors, and distributors. Each company that produces a product contracts individually with farms, factories, and distributors to get the lowest price possible. Those prices vary from company to company (or farm to farm) and sharing information might put one company at an advantage. Ultimately, the goal for each company is to maximize profits. One USDA representative confirmed that competition was the motivator behind the secrecy.

In the end, there were many blank spaces on our chart, and many places where we had entered “not available,” “classified,” “confidential,” or “no response.” Throughout our many discussions I had asked the class how they felt about not being able to get specific information about the food they eat, and they had repeatedly responded with a sense of confusion and betrayal. What felt like important information to us was determined to be none of our business.

Looking Back

This was not an easy unit to teach. If I were to attempt it again, I would simplify the investigation. Students might track only one or two main ingredients (produce, grain, or meat) in each item. I would also ask children to document attempts at communicating with farmers and corporations, and the results of each contact. I might collaborate with an older class of students with more computer experience, in order to minimize the need for parent help.

Ultimately, I think the investigation would be a better match for middle and high school students who could take full responsibility for the assignment, and, working over a period of weeks, document each attempt at contacting farmers, producers, and distributors.

A year after this research project, I went back to some of these students to ask what they remembered from the study. All of them remembered how difficult it had been to get information, even if they themselves had been successful. In a comment that was indicative of how many of us felt, one student said, “I felt like Kraft was telling me to buzz off. It made me wonder if they’re not telling me something; are they hiding something from me? It made me be a little more aware of what’s going into my food — check the contents, the ingredients, think more about it.”

While we were all disappointed we couldn’t get some of the information we had hoped for, this lesson provided some powerful learning and lots of food for thought. The children now had a deeper understanding about the purpose behind our new lunch program, and some families had reported changes in the choices they make at home. In an emergent unit like this, where I was learning along with my students, the point was not to have all of the answers, but to be able to wonder with children about how the world of information operates, to teach children to ask the questions, and ultimately, to help them act on what they have learned. My long-term hope was that children would continue to think critically about their own food choices and continue to ask questions about the business of food.

Michi Thacker ( teaches at Lincoln Elementary School in Olympia, Wash.