Teach: Why We Need to Teach About Food

Though I grew up helping my parents with their garden and enjoyed cooking and trying new cuisines, my food nerd fever didn’t really hit me till grad school. While in Loyola College’s Liberal Studies program, I signed up for a course entitled “We Are What We Eat: Food and American Identity.” Cotaught by a dynamic husband and wife duo, we had to read a sizable stack of books, research food traditions and policy, watch numerous documentaries, and discuss, discuss, discuss it all. My final research paper was on how the philosophy of Slow Food could offer hope for so many of our country’s food-rooted malaises, from the obesity crisis to questionable ag subsidies to a fragmented sense of community/family and beyond. Though pregnant and attending classes in the evening after a day of teaching high school in Baltimore, I was energized and focused. Food was fascinating.

Slow Food is an international organization that encourages humanity to preserve and savor its food traditions. Image credit: Slow Food

This course (prepare yourself for seemingly hyperbolic yet accurate statement) changed my life, and, as a result, would also change the lives of my family, friends, and students. Whoa.

 

Of course Neo is impressed, they only eat mush in the Matrix. Image credit: Giphy

Fast forward: I’m teaching English 102 at Montgomery College and decide to have my students do a closed research paper on the ethical impacts of our food choices. Students are engaged, thinking critically, and seeking more information outside the topic. As a complement, I plan a field trip to Rocklands Farm in Montgomery County’s Agricultural Reserve so students can observe and experience sustainable agriculture firsthand.

Rockland-Farm-Wedding-Sweet-Tea-Photography.jpg
Rocklands Farm is an idyllic setting for learning about food and savoring nature. Photo credit: Sweet Tea Photography, via United with Love

I’m not sure how it’s going to go; I mean, a field trip for a college research and composition class? To a farm? It felt like uncharted territory to me, which is my favorite kind of territory, but I wasn’t  sure if students would benefit. Would it be a good use of their time and energy? Was a field trip even appropriate for a college class?

 

Though Miss Frizzle is my spirit animal, it must be noted that she teaches elementary school. Image credit:Scholastic

Fast forward: it was. Students were energized and enjoyed the experience. In post-trip reflections, they shared it was the highlight of the semester. Many said it changed their ways of thinking about food and what they eat. One student who brought her dad and brother with her (she translated the tour for them into Vietnamese) said her father decided to completely overhaul the family’s food choices as a result of the experience. Many of my students at MC were immigrants or first generation and unaware of the modern industrial food system in the US. They didn’t know why the food tasted so differently here or why they had problems eating food products they enjoyed back home. Powerful stuff.

Fast forward more: I am teaching at Frederick Community College, surrounded by far more farms than Montgomery County but I wonder if students would still benefit from a trip to Rocklands Farm, with its beautiful setting and content-rich tour. So this summer, we went and students loved it. After meeting Rocklands co-founder and farm manager Greg Glenn, they started off learning about the dominant CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) system vs. free range with some role-playing activities among the rolling hills and flowers.

Students experiencing a feedlot simulation

Clambering into the back of a farm truck, they rode on hay bales to a sheep pasture and learned about rotational grazing and “regenerative agriculture” from farmer Greg. Whereas modern industrial agriculture models contribute to environmental degradation, the model practiced at Rocklands helps to heal the earth.

Look at these wonderful humans, ready to learn

Students tasted grasses and even smelled a crumble of manure from this ecosystem to emphasize its positive impact on the environment. (Spoiler: It smelled like soil or a riverbank, not eau de port-a-potty.) Greg explained the natural elegance and economy of this system, emphasizing, “The beauty is in the biology, not the technology.”

Rocklands Farm and its regenerative agriculture at work

Riding further along in the truck to another field, students learned about pastured chickens and their role in rotational grazing as well as the confusing nomenclature around supermarket egg labeling. We were also treated to the amusing spectacle of the farm dogs herding wayward chickens back to their enclosure.

This is what cage free really looks like
And here are free range students

Our tour ended with a Q&A session in an old barn where students were able to ask Greg questions related to their final research paper topics: water quality, GMO’s, food waste, food insecurity, and more. Rather than asking straightforward questions a quick Google search could solve, students were asking questions way up on Bloom’s taxonomy, demonstrating a solid grasp of their complex topics. Students weren’t asking questions to simply find answers; they were asking in order to formulate solutions to problems our community, country, and world face.

Learning about our food system on a farm is powerful
During the Q&A students were surrounded by tools of agriculture’s past

After enjoying a professor-provided picnic snack, students turned in their homework and either headed home along the winding country roads of Montgomery County’s Ag Reserve or sampled local products from Rocklands and other area farms from their farm store.

Learning does not have to take place on a campus, in a classroom, and at a desk. Sometimes the deepest and most meaningful lessons are under a blue sky with chirping insects, soaring birds, and muddy farm dogs.

Building connections beyond the classroom

…But in a college English class? So, yes, I’m an English professor but I also teach about food. My students can read, research, and write about anything in a composition class. So why food?

  • What other topic has the potential to revolutionize the world we live in?
  • Food impacts our environment, physical and mental health, quality of life, financial stability, and more.
  • Food directly impacts students, their families, and their communities.
  • Food as a topic is accessible, relatable, and enjoyable.
  • Food serves as a concrete bridge to other times and cultures.
  • Food is related to a wide variety of majors and career goals.
  • And, from this educator’s perspective: because education should be transformative and empowering.

Here is a concrete example of the transformative power of experiential learning and food as focus from my summer class. We started the semester learning about the critical role honeybees play in our food system and visited a local apiary. At the beginning, students didn’t  feel comfortable around honeybees and they hung back cautiously.

Understandably cautious yet still curious

Once they heard about, observed, and experienced firsthand honeybee society and beekeeping techniques, students became enthusiastic and energized. No longer hanging back away from the bees, instead they crowded in to look at them closely.

Students were excited to handle and observe frames of honeybees up close

What a metaphor! What potential there is for education to provide students with engaging and transformative experiences they would not have otherwise. Let’s focus on using these opportunities to empower students to change their lives, their families’ lives, and the community. Let’s look beyond the lecture and campus as default; when we choose to, a literal world of possibilities opens up.

Consider: how might this shift in educational pedagogy and place change our country and our world for the better? Just some food for thought.

Thoughts on experiential learning, food, and/or field trips? Please share in the comments. 

You may also like to check out the resources page of this blog for things to read and watch that have informed and inspired me and my students.


2 thoughts on “Teach: Why We Need to Teach About Food

  1. I so enjoy the trip to field trip to the farm. I love the hay ride and learning farm life lol. This class was unlike any class I taken in the past. Professor Rai is by far the best teacher I ever had, she really encourages your learning.

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  2. Beautiful, I was on that field trip and it was truly the highlight of the semester. Thank you Christine. I will so miss you.

    Like

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