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Food Literacy Curriculum at Montgomery High, Santa Rosa

Heather Garcia-Rossi is an English teacher at Montgomery High School in Santa Rosa, California. She describes how she’s used Nourish and other resources to build a comprehensive food literacy curriculum for her senior students.

I have always made it a point to talk to my seniors about their food choices. Based on what I saw and their own comments, the majority of them seemed to think nothing of eating fast food several times a week, many claimed that they never ate a meal with their families, and energy drinks replaced drinking water as the beverage of choice. Seven of my seniors last year were already parents, so their choices were affecting not only themselves, but their children.

I see my job as an educator of life, not just of English. And so I decided that my spontaneous mini-lectures were not enough. I wanted to lead a sequenced, in-depth study of our food system and how it impacts our health, our economy, and our environment. This is what I came up with.

The activities below were completed in sequence over a period of weeks with non-college-track seniors. I was inspired by many existing pieces of curriculum, including Nourish, Food, Inc., and California’s Expository Reading and Writing Course, but I’ll take a bit of the credit for some of my ideas and for integrating the great resources out there.

We started with the question: How do our food choices affect our health, our communities, our economy, and our environment? Some of the activities we engaged in:

  • Students started the unit by keeping a food journal for three days. We arrived at definitions for “processed” and “organic,” but other than that I did no pre-teaching. I asked them to pay attention to what influenced their food choices—was it their families, their friends, their route to/from school and work, their wallets?
  • Quick Write: How do your food choices affect others?
  • We watched Nourish and compared the main idea to how we ate as individuals. We then wrote a summary of the film. The students added to their quick writes, and we discussed them.
  • I asked the students to choose a favorite food—something they ate regularly—from their food journal and “tell its story.”
  • I brought in a collection of food items (apples, bananas, crackers, soda, canned soup, etc.) and gave a different item to each pair of students. I asked them to analyze the impact their food had just on the environment—how far did it travel (and how many times)? How much was it processed? How many ingredients had to travel, then? How was it packaged? What happens to the packaging after the food is consumed?
  • We did another analysis of real food, this time focusing on health, by looking at two comparable products; one a “typical” supermarket food (Cheez-It, Coke, Campbell’s soup, etc), the other a natural foods store product (Back to Nature cheese crackers, Hansen’s cola, Amy’s Kitchen soup, etc.). They liked this!
  • We read a series of articles about food and food beliefs, several of which came from California’s Expository Reading and Writing Course, Michael Pollan’s Food Rules, and various others I had collected over time. For each one, we annotated the article, wrote a précis and response, and after each few we conducted a Socratic seminar about the issues presented. The students especially loved discussing who is to blame for America’s growing obesity problem.
  • Quick Write: What are some changes you are willing to make to your eating habits that would affect our environment and your health for the better?
  • During a routine conversation, I asked the students how many of them had experience growing their own food—or anything, for that matter. I was shocked by how few had. I got permission from my principal to plant flowers in random places around campus, and one day the students each received a handful of seeds and bulbs and chose spots on campus to create “random acts of beauty.” (I first checked with maintenance and got a map of where pipes or other obstacles might be, and we discussed as a class what areas might receive water and proper light). I wanted them to have the experience of watching something that they planted grow. They really loved checking in on their seeds, and it was gratifying to see so many sprouts later in the year.
  • We watched Food, Inc., and completed some of the activities and journal prompts from their curriculum.
  • We then looked at the economy and morality of food, points highlighted in Food, Inc. Who has access to healthy food? What about our responsibility toward animals? What are the long-term costs of eating processed foods (the hidden costs of food)? How are those offset by eating more expensive, quality foods now? What if you, like the family in the film, just have no choice?! This is a sensitive topic, but the students really enjoyed it—they got pretty upset (in a way that stirs action), actually.
  • I asked volunteers to meet me at the farmers market. Only a few did, but we enjoyed looking at the bounty and talking to the people who grow our food.
  • I asked a nutritionist to come in and prepare healthy snacks from local ingredients with the students. She came three times.
  • We created food “propaganda” posters and plastered the school with them! The posters had thought-provoking images and statistics, as well as suggested actions to take.
  • They wrote a cumulative essay synthesizing what they’d learned about why we must “vote with our forks.” The final prompt is below.

Also: Every time a kid brought something edible to class, we dissected it! They are not actually allowed to eat in class, but it became fun for them to pull out their snacks and lunches and have us analyze them. I saw a tremendous decline in the consumption of energy drinks, and an increase in reusable water bottles, at the very least. One young mother swore she would sacrifice in other places in order to provide her daughter with organic milk and eggs. Two fathers vowed to get more involved in feeding their kids. They LOVED this unit.

This year, knowing in advance what I plan to do, I will arrange field trips to the nearby Lucky’s and Whole Foods markets, and let the kids choose the products they are interested in when they do their comparisons. We are lucky to be able to walk both places from campus.

Final Essay Writing Prompt

As Americans add pounds and increase their incidence of diabetes, cancer, and heart disease, critics blame the fast food industry. Additionally, our desire for cheap meat in large quantities contributes to the destruction of the agricultural industry and the environment, the effects of which travel around the globe. The world is running out of food, and no one is doing anything. Yet we consumers have the power to change the food industry.

Write an informative, persuasive essay about how and why we must “vote with our forks.” Be sure to cite enough information from the articles we have read and films we have seen to convey a thorough and accurate picture of the food industry and its problems. Include suggestions about what people can do, what YOU will (or would like to) do, and why we should care.

Think in terms of: What is the problem? Why should it matter? What can we do?

What Is the Problem?

  • What is the history of our unhealthy food industry?
  • What facts most surprised, upset, or angered you? This leads to…

Why Should It Matter?

  • How does our consumption of unhealthy food affect the environment? (key words: monocrops, pesticides, herbicides, contaminated water, fossil fuels)
  • How does it affect our health?
  • How are the animals and workers treated? Do we have any moral or ethical obligations to them?
  • What are the hidden costs of unhealthy food?

What Can/Should/Will You Do?

  • What are things the general consumer can do to help change the problem?
  • What will you do, specifically, if anything? Why?

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