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Teaching the Food System

A Project of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future




The following modules span topics from field to plate, emphasizing the relationships between food, public health, equity and the environment. The material is focused on issues in the U.S. food system but also touches on some of their global implications. Though we suggest teaching the modules sequentially, they can be used in any order, either independently or as part of a series. The sequence of modules roughly follows the food supply chain from field to plate. Read more about the curriculum.

Vocabulary Builders

We recommended students become familiar with key vocabulary terms before beginning each lesson. These activities are designed for use with the list of definitions provided in each module.

Unit I: Introduction to the Food System

Ingredients of the Food System

After reflecting on the roles food plays in their lives, students will follow the stages along the supply chains of several foods from field to plate. They will explore the relationships between food, health, justice and the environment and depict them on posters and graphic organizers.

History of Food

The food system has experienced more changes in the past century than it had over the previous 10,000 years. Students will follow the transition from pre-agricultural societies to the prevailing industrial food system. They will create timelines and graphs depicting long-term trends.

Unit II: From Field to Plate

Agriculture and Ecosystems

Students will trace the ingredients of a meal back to their origins in the soil, reflecting on the connections between food, agriculture and ecosystems. They will assess some of the challenges facing agriculture and devise plans to address them. Organic and sustainable approaches to agriculture will also be discussed.

Food Animal Production

Students will compare different approaches to raising food animals and assess the implications for health, rural communities, animal welfare and the environment. They will view the short film Out to Pasture: The Future of Farming? and respond to narratives from farmers, community organizers and researchers. Seafood harvest and production will also be discussed.

Food Processing

Students will categorize foods by their extent of processing, then brainstorm the steps involved in manufacturing several processed foods. They will examine why and how foods are processed, then explore the dietary, health and economic concerns associated with certain aspects of the industry.

Food Distribution and Transport

Students will explore the rationale for transporting food over long distances. They will map the distribution networks of common foods and assess the resulting energy, climate and economic impacts. They will critically examine the strengths and limitations of local and regional food systems.

Food Safety

Students will identify vulnerabilities to contamination along the food supply chain. They will simulate an investigation of a foodborne illness outbreak; using survey data, graphs and other tools, they will determine the contaminated food and pathogen responsible. Both microbial and chemical contaminants will be discussed.

Unit III: Eating, Nutrition and Food Environments

Diet and Influences on Food Choice

Students will explore the relationship between diet and health, play a game about how American diets have changed over recent decades, and brainstorm reasons why people eat what they eat. They will learn about programs geared toward reducing the epidemic of diet-related diseases, then design their own intervention.

Food Environments

Students will examine how the environments in homes, schools, restaurants, stores and communities can affect what they eat. They will use tools such as maps and surveys to measure the cost, availability and accessibility of food in communities. Food maps of Baltimore City are included for in-class activities. Key concepts include food deserts and grocery gaps.

Food Marketing and Labeling

Students will explore the effects of food marketing and labeling on food choice, including the influence of brand awareness on their own choices. In-class activities include brainstorms, discussions and a debate over the merits of pouring rights contracts. Students will apply key concepts through group projects.

Hunger and Food Security

After sharing perspectives on how to define and measure hunger, students will explore the history, causes and consequences of hunger and food insecurity in the United States. Through discussions, activities and final projects, students will compare the strengths and limitations of emergency food programs, federal food and nutrition assistance, and the community food security movement.