There are two compliments I can receive as a high school teacher that tells me I am doing something right. The first can come from a parent or other family member of one of my students, “my child has told me all about the things we are doing wrong at our house”. Normally, this comes in the form of a half-joking, half-serious comment. Although I have provided their child with one more thing to complain about (and being a former high school student myself, there is a lot of complaining), I have also somehow managed to get their child to speak to them AT ALL about what is happening in their life.
The second comes from any student. High school students are inundated by violent movies and video games, R-rated movies, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Youtube, drama among best friends and boyfriends and the current events of the world. It is practically impossible to shock them. So when one of them says, “Is that true?!” or “Are you serious?!”, I know I’m on to something.
This year, the week before Christmas break, we spent time in my AP Environmental Science course researching where our food comes from. I had my students make a list of 20 foods they (or their family) ate over the course of a couple of days, and asked them to bring the list in.
Day 1: We spent the day searching for which company produces the products they eat. Not just the company, but the parent company that owns them. Turns out, most of our food comes from 10-15 major companies. PepsiCo being the biggest. PepsiCo owns smaller companies such as Quaker, Dole and Frito-Lay. Day 1 there was a good deal of shock and awe in the room. I am continually amazed that my 130 highly educated, very bright AP students do not know some of the common happenings of the world.
Day 2: Today, we checked out ingredients. I gave the students a list of various names for corn, soy and wheat, and had them compare these lists to the ingredients in their products. They also had to check to see if the products contain beet sugar or canola oil. 85-90% of corn, soy, wheat, beet sugar and canola oil are genetically modified. While you can’t be sure which products have GMO ingredients, if it’s not organic, you have an 85% chance there are GMOs in it. (Insert more shock and awe here) The two most common comments in Day 2: What the heck is beet sugar?! and Why is there corn in everything?! Very good questions.
Day 3: By Day 3, the students are starting to catch on to the point of all this. I only had them research 10 foods for Day 1 and 2. What should have taken us roughly 45 minutes in total, is now pushing into Day 3. They are infuriated at how difficult it is to find this information. These are tech-savvy teenagers, and yet the information is elusive. Today’s best comments include things like, “why does this website give me Facebook, Twitter and 35 Pinterest links, but no ingredients?!” and “This is impossible!” My favorite, though was, “so, is the point of this to show us that everything comes from the same 5 places and same 5 ingredients and that none of this should be difficult to find?”. Day 3 was a success.
Day 4: By day 4, I’d heard from a few parents via email, or running into them in the grocery store. Continued reinforcement that the kids were paying attention. Today, I had them look up five videos on Factory Farms. Again, most of them don’t know where there food comes from, except in very general terms. So this was eye-opening (if you don’t believe me, YouTube Factory Farms or “from Farm to Fridge” – pretty sure farm videos shouldn’t come with an explicit content warning). By now, the comments had evolved into, “I’m never eating again” – always a classic. Yet, what I continue to see happens…the shock wears off after a few days, and it becomes easy to go back to the usual food. I encourage small changes to maintain awareness.
Day 5: Time to bring it all together. I had students research non-GMO or organic alternatives to the foods on their list. Once they found them, they had to view images of the packaging of both their product and the alternative, and choose which one they would prefer to eat based on packaging alone. The students finally saw what I have been complaining about – it’s all marketing and packaging. The websites that have fun activities, but no ingredients are listed. The companies that are against GMO labeling. I’m hopeful that at least a few will come back in January and tell me about their food-related conversations with their families over the holidays, and perhaps a few small changes along the way.