Definitely one of the most engaging presentations I attended at the NOFA-Mass conference was a presentation by members of The Food Project, a farm-based youth outreach program in Boston. It combines environmental stewardship with food education and youth leadership- all of our presenters were high school students. They showed us a number of very useful and interactive activities geared towards community engagement around food.
One of the biggest problems with food system education involves surmounting the apathy barrier and making food issues seem real to people. It can be hard to make people care about things that they don’t see- especially when what they do see is plentiful, cheap food. The Food Project uses a peer-lead system similar to the WPI project from earlier in the week, and has developed a number of simple activities to educate and raise awareness around food issues.
They start with basic facts and definitions- i.e., brainstorming a definition for ‘food system’ and using statistics from Michael Pollan about food calories vs. transportation calories (in case you’re wondering, it takes 10 calories of gas to produce and ship 1 calorie of non-meat food and 40 calories for meats). The real gems, though, are the interactive activities: there’s one that focuses on the food system as a whole, two that focus on the actual contents of industrial food, and two that focus on workers’ rights (or lack thereof).
The first one, concerning the overall food system, involves splitting the group in half and having each of them construct a ‘food chain’ by putting cards in order. These cards have various pictures on them showing different stages of the food system- a field, a truck, a processing plant, a grocery store, etc. The trick, however, is that one group has been given a conventional food system set of cards that has twice as many cards as the other group’s local food system deck. This lays out for people in a simple and visual way the amount of energy that goes into the two different systems, and the fact that the local group is favored to win (due to its fewer number of cards) can act as a metaphor.
The second activity involves arranging drinks based on sugar content- groups are given a number of cans full of popular drinks and told to arrange them in ascending order of sugar content without looking at the labels. At the end, the sugar contents are read out, participants rearrange their cans into the proper order, and the presenter passes around a ziplock bag full of the amount of sugar found in the most sugary drink.
Immediately after that, individuals are given slips of paper on which are written long chemical ingredients. They’re then asked to read the ingredients out loud- a task that often proves difficult, if not impossible. They’re then shown a piece of plate on which a McDonald’s strawberry milkshake was spilled several years ago (the plate has dissolved; the milkshake remains, unmolded, in a chalky solid form) and told that the ingredients whose names they read off are, in fact, the ingredients in a McDonald’s strawberry milkshake. This is reminiscent of the scene in Supersize Me wherein a number of McDonald’s products are put in jars to decompose. Most of the products mold over eventually, but the fries stay intact for six months or so (whereupon the intern throws them out). This is another excellent way to engage people in what, exactly, they’re eating- it forces them to take a good, hard look at the contents of their food.
The final two activities are perhaps the most powerful, however. They focus on Immokalee farm workers (for a great book that talks quite a bit about their working conditions, you should check out Tomatoland) and their working conditions. The first activity involves filling up a basket full of heavy objects and running it up and down a hallway to simulate loading trucks full of tomatoes- this is a fairly lighthearted activity, but participants are constantly reminded that Immokalee workers (and, indeed, farm laborers throughout our food system) do this for upwards of ten hours at a time.
The final activity involves passing out a number of cards detailing heinous crimes- cases of human slavery, sexual assault, extortion, etc. Participants are asked to talk about their perceptions of these events- when did they happen? Where did they happen?- and are sobered to hear that a good percentage of the events happened in the US in the last five years.
These activities are an incredibly useful tool in teaching about the food system- they’re a good mix of lightheartedness and hard facts, and force participants to confront the contents and origins of their food. And isn’t that half the battle?