A smartly designed curriculum aims to use children’s misconceptions about the food system as a teachable moment.
by Adele Peters
“If you ask a lot of kids here where food comes from, they say the grocery store,” says Zoe Burgess, who works with Jones Valley Teaching Farm, an urban farm in downtown Birmingham, Alabama. “Or they say Walmart or Public, which is a big chain in the South.”
Burgess sees this question, and the fact that food doesn’t actually sprout from store shelves, as a perfect opportunity to talk about the complexity of the food system.
The farm hosts programs for kids on-site, and they’ve also recently started visiting schools in Birmingham. Now, they’ve designed a new kit to bring along, which aims to teach kids about each step food takes from the field to a plate or compost bin.
Created for first- and second-graders, the lesson starts with a picture book where a 7-year-old asks his mother where food comes from. Then the class dives into games. As they learn about growing food, for example, someone from Jones Valley reads a description of a particular type of seed, and they match it to a plant on a game board. When they talk about marketing food, they analyze examples of somewhat boring and uncreative food ads, and get the chance to design their own—focused on how they might be able to make whole foods like an apple or carrot more appealing.
The farm partnered with the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi to tell the stories of people working in food. “They have a really amazing collection of documentaries and archives of people all throughout the South who are involved in some way, shape, or form with the food system,” Burgess says.
At the end of each lesson, kids get a card with a photo on one side from the Alliance’s archives, and a person’s story on the back. “They learn about someone who sells their freshly baked bread at the farmers market, or who are championship oyster shuckers,” she explains. “We give kids an important opportunity to see that food in very personal terms in the sense that there are a lot of people who are working very hard to make food happen.”
The entire kit was designed from scratch by Jones Valley’s staff, including an in-house graphic designer and industrial designer. “We feel really strongly that kids need as many opportunities as possible to engage with really strongly designed materials that also have a really strong purpose in terms of content,” Burgess says.
The team’s working on additional versions for older students, and once they’ve finished the process of prototyping and refining the kits, they hope to make them available to more schools.