Where does your food come from? How is it made, and how does it get to your house?
The sixth graders have discovered that these seemingly simple questions can lead to complex and sometimes challenging answers, ranging from industrial processing of artificial ingredients to the work conditions of farm workers. Their studies about food have also uncovered connections to other topics and curriculum units from earlier in the year.
As part of a research project, the students are investigating the manufacturing of foods like Spam, Twinkies, and other snack products. In class, they are engaged in an exploration of the way food is made, distributed, and consumed in our country. Earlier this week, Ms. Kurlowecz introduced a book about migrant farm workers, Growing Season: The Life of A Migrant Community, by Gary Harwood and David Hassler. The book is a photo essay documenting the lives and experiences of a group of seasonal farm workers and the local residents of an agricultural community in northeastern Ohio.
In small groups, students read selections from the book, highlighting specific individuals, families, and services in the community. Ms. Kurlowecz and Mr. Spencer encouraged them to identify themes or situations that they had encountered in previous units of study. Conversations ranged from comparisons to the conditions experienced by farm laborers in California during the depression to the sharecroppers of the southern United States to the workers’ needs for medical care and social services. Many of the workers featured in the book are of Mexican descent, and they travel regularly between Texas and Ohio, following the agricultural harvest seasons. Mr. Spencer referred to a map of the United States, indicating the route and the distance traveled by the migrant workers each year. The students discussed the relatively low pay earned by these laborers, prompting a question from Mr. Spencer about our assumptions about income and quality of work.
Ms. Kurlowecz had written a question on the board: “How does this reading connect to your group’s food project?” For a few minutes, no one had an answer, until one student said, “This is like our project because it’s another way that our food gets to us.” The difference between potatoes being dug from the ground and potato chips in shiny packages on a supermarket shelf was dramatic in the context of this conversation.
The personal stories and vignettes about individuals and families generated thoughtful responses and questions as the students considered a hidden, and profoundly human aspect of food production.