Guest Lesson | Thinking Critically About Food in a Season of Plenty

By Suzie Boss for the Learning Network of the New York Times

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This is the second post in a series in which the education writer Suzie Boss suggests ways to use The New York Times Fixes blog and other resources as inspiration for designing real-world projects for schools.

In her first post, “For Authentic Learning, Start With Real Problems,” Ms. Boss explains the concept of project-based learning and suggests ways in which this strategy can work with recent issues in the news.

Thinking Critically About Food in a Season of Plenty

With Thanksgiving and the winter holidays practically upon us, it is natural to be thinking about favorite recipes and family celebrations.

Without dampening that holiday spirit, you can turn this into a season for critical thinking with projects that encourage students to investigate why we eat what we do.

In a previous post we suggested how you might use Fixes, a series that is part of the Opinionator section of The Times, as the starting point for timely, relevant project-based learning, or P.B.L. The authors of Fixes explore some of today’s most pressing social problems and the innovators working to solve them.

Through P.B.L., students can investigate and develop solutions to similar issues, often focusing on their own communities. In the process, they learn academic content and also develop important “soft” skills, like collaboration and problem-solving.

Let’s whet your appetite with some examples.

Filling the Grocery Gap

In “Time to Revisit Food Deserts,” the Fixes author David Bornstein highlights recent research about access to healthy foods in low-income neighborhoods. He also models the kind of questioning and analysis that you want to encourage students to do in project-based learning. Mr. Bornstein asks: “Is access to healthy food a primary barrier to healthy eating? And, if so, will increasing it lead to better health outcomes?”

Students could bring this line of questioning closer to home by finding out whether their community fits the United States Department of Agriculture definition of a food desert. (Here’s a mapping tool from the Department of Agriculture.) If students determine that their community is lacking when it comes to fruits and vegetables, they might be motivated to find out, “How can we fill the grocery gap in our neighborhood?”

P.B.L. hooks students’ interest by asking them to explore questions that matter to them. Investigating access to fresh, affordable foods in their community might involve taking surveys, mapping locations of grocers or produce carts, and interviewing nutritionists and other experts. Often, projects end with students sharing what they have learned with a public audience.

Earlier this year, for instance, high school students from CUNY’s College Now at Hostos Community College set out to discover whether there are enough supermarkets in the Bronx. They wanted to find out, “Who gets supermarkets, who doesn’t, and why?” Collaborating with the Center for Urban Pedagogy, they conducted consumer research in the aisles of grocery stores. They interviewed experts from fields ranging from real estate to food distribution to urban planning. They summarized their findings in a booklet about food justice called “Funky Fresh” and hosted a public event to share their research and recommendations.

Food deserts aren’t limited to urban neighborhoods. Last year, students in rural Bertie County in North Carolina designed and built a farmers’ market for their community as a strategy to improve eating habits in a region where many families experience obesity-related illnesses. Read about the evolution of their project in this Edutopia post, “Studio H: How Design/Build Curriculum Can Transform a Community.”

Reframe the Food Drive

Many schools take part in holiday food drives. Expand on this tradition by planning projects that challenge students to examine the causes and consequences of hunger, and, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, learn about the role these food drives play in emergencies. Here are some resources for inspiration:

— Start with statistics to give students a better understanding of who goes hungry. “Families Struggle to Afford Food, Survey Finds” paints the big picture of what experts call “food insecurity.” An online tool, “Map the Meal Gap,” allows students to research and compare statistics about hunger at the country level.

— For a poignant look at the issue of childhood hunger, read how “Sesame Street” has responded in the article “Food Stamps in Elmo’s World.”

— Oxfam America Hunger Banquet is an awareness-raising event where the luck of the draw determines what you eat. A free planning guide outlines how to host an event in your community.

— The Empty Bowls Project integrates art and social action. The basic concept is simple: Students make ceramic bowls, which are used to serve soup at a fund-raiser. Patrons take home their empty bowls to remind them of those who go hungry around the world. Expand on the project by having students investigate and think critically about which charity should benefit from their fund-raiser.

— According to this article, food banks provide assistance to more than 37 million Americans a year through more than 61,000 outlets. During Hurricane Sandy, food banks were on the front lines with food, bottled water and cleaning supplies. But, as the article describes, their mission is expanding beyond just handing out food. Have students read the article, then investigate where their food drive collections will go locally, and what more they might do to help that organization or get involved in its mission.

— Two Learning Network lesson plans, “Helping the Hungry: Researching the Causes of Hunger and Related Charities” and “World Food Day: Addressing Hunger Around the Globe,” supply more ideas and resources for learning about how to help.

Many Right Answers

In project-based learning., there may be multiple solutions to the problem or issue that students are investigating. That means there is room for creativity when it comes to brainstorming potential solutions. Projects also set the stage for critical thinking because students will need to evaluate the pros and cons of ideas.

To get students primed for innovative problem-solving, have them read Tina Rosenberg’s Fixes column, “In ‘Food Deserts,’ Oases of Nutrition.” She explains why in poor places like Jakarta, street food offers cheap eats but leads to poor childhood nutrition. She explains: “Overcrowded, kitchenless housing has given rise to a culture of street food that has done wonders for tourism in Asian cities — the most crowded parts of the planet. But it has also condemned tens or hundreds of millions of people to an almost nutrition-free diet.”

Ms. Rosenberg describes how Mercy Corps, a humanitarian organization, has encouraged some street vendors to pursue a niche market — creating a special menu of cheap but healthy fare for children 5 and under. Vendors operate out of brightly colored carts that play music. There is education along with enterprise. As Ms. Rosenberg explains: “Four dolls on the cart represent different food groups and are named for benefits of good nutrition — Strong, Smart, Lively and Taller. The cart also has built-in toys teaching shapes or colors that kids can play with while they wait.”

From that article, you could shift to a discussion of how fast-food restaurants in the United States appeal to young diners. That is a topic for which most students will have plenty of background knowledge.

Depending on your subject area, you might design a project that explores the ethics of fast-food advertising or analyzes the economics, nutritional impact or cultural history of fast food. For a social studies project, students might investigate a recent proposal to allow food stamps to be used to buy fast food. (For background, read “No Funds for Fast Food.” ) As a culminating event, students could hold a public forum and offer pro-and-con arguments about the proposal.

Related: Our collections of lessons and other resources, All About Food and Thanksgiving.

Ms. Boss is the author of “Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age” and “Bringing Innovation to School: Empowering Students to Thrive in a Changing World.”