With a global food crisis, rising environmental concerns, and America’s children facing epidemic levels of diet-related diseases, how can educators positively engage students in understanding the connections among these topics?
Big Ideas: Linking Food, Culture, Health, and the Environment, written by the Center for Ecoliteracy with a foreword by bestselling author Michael Pollan, provides a conceptual framework for integrated learning in these important areas in K–12 classrooms.
…The nutritional analysis of what we feed our children has led to a system where chicken nuggets, tater tots, chocolate milk with high fructose corn syrup and canned fruit cocktail or even in some cases popsicles are an acceptable meal. Nutrient analysis allows the governing bodies an easy way to access whether a school district is complying with the guidelines, but is a system where the importance of numbers has replaced the importance of food….This is a system that demands a minimum of calories, but not a maximum, which makes no sense in a country where over 30% of the children are over-weight or obese. This extremely flawed system results in agribusiness companies formulating Products (often mistaken as food) that fit the numbers, but has no real relationship to food as we know it, or at least should know it.
Read The National School Lunch Program: Time for a Make Over in its entirety.
On Monday, D.C. Public Schools took its own step in improving school food when it announced the new vendors it has selected to provide more healthful meals for two pilot programs scheduled to begin this fall at 14 D.C. elementary schools. Revolution Foods, a California-based company that serves 25 D.C. schools from a kitchen in Glen Burnie, will provide prepackaged meals at seven schools that are undergoing renovations and have no student lunchroom. DC Central Kitchen will provide made-from-scratch meals such as vegetable stir fries and homemade quiches at seven schools in Northeast Washington.
The pilot programs require both vendors to meet the strict nutrition standards for foods in schools recommended by the Institute of Medicine — the gold standard for healthful school lunches. In addition, it requires that each meal contain fruit, vegetables and hormone-free milk; 75 percent of the edible products must be 75 percent or more whole-grain; and grass-fed, local, antibiotic-free meats must be served whenever possible. The portable-meal proposal also calls for biodegradable packaging.
Ecoliteracy.org makes a good point…
Students learn from everything they experience while they are at school—not just in the classroom. In the lunchroom, for example, students form ideas about nutrition and sustainability simply by seeing what food is prepared, how it is served, and how waste is processed. A school that serves nutritious food in commercial-free surroundings and composts kitchen waste teaches very different lessons from those taught by a school that sells junk food and sends its waste to the landfill.
Learning about sustainable food and the problems with factory farming can be daunting, but with a little effort you can quickly learn enough to make the safest and wisest food choices for you and your family.
Here, we introduce you to the major issues surrounding sustainable agriculture and factory farming. Below we’ve provided simple overviews of the issues – click on the headers to read the full report!
Much of the food we find at today’s supermarkets is highly processed and contains numerous food additives. These substances are used to change the way food tastes and looks (altering the color and texture), to improve the nutritional quality of foods (adding vitamins and minerals), and to increase the food’s shelf life to prevent spoilage.
Industrial farms produce massive amounts of animal waste that is known to release greenhouse gasses into the air. Aside from the air pollution that comes from farm waste, the industrialized food system also burns significant amounts of fossil fuels to power the trucks that distribute products.
As farms have become more industrialized, animals have become more of a commodity. They are considered units of production, rather than living, breathing beings, and as a result these animals are treated inhumanely. But increasingly, more and more consumers are demanding better treatment of animals.
Because of the crowded and unsanitary conditions on factory farms, animals are often fed low doses of antibiotics. Antibiotics are also used to make the animals grow faster. This is contributing to the growing problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in humans.
Biodiversity is important because ecosystems rely on the interaction of a variety of plant and animal species, and because various breeds of animals and plants have valuable genetic material. Industrial agriculture is one among many unsustainable human activities that has lead to rapid decreases in the world’s biodiversity.
So how is food—supposedly life-sustaining stuff—one of the key factors in an environmental crisis that threatens the basis of life on earth? A big part of the answer is in the rapid and radical twentieth-century transformation of our food system from sustainably based, locally focused production, to a fossil-fuel addicted industrialized system.
Cloning of animals used in food production is a controversial issue both because of its ethical implications and the potential threat it poses to human health.
Sustainable farms provide a welcome alternative to the problems associated with factory farming. Unlike corporate factory farm owners who have very little interest in the condition of local communities, sustainable farmers have a strong connection to their communities and a demonstrated commitment to preserving the surrounding land. In addition, workers on sustainable farms are treated fairly and earn a respectable wage.
Dairy foods production is a multi-billion dollar industry, and over the past century it has grown increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few major corporations. This has lead to widespread environmental damage, low standards of animal welfare, and mass production of milk tainted with antibiotics, artificial growth hormones and pesticide residues.
Most meals travel hundreds or even thousands of miles to reach your dinner plate. By eating food produced locally, you are helping yourself, the environment and your community.
Proponents of industrial agriculture claim that large-scale factory farming is the most efficient way to produce huge quantities of inexpensive food and that without industrial agriculture, food prices would be excessively high. But the price of industrial food does not take into account the true costs of production. When these hidden environmental and health costs are factored in, industrial food costs more than sustainable.
Agriculture has an enormous impact on the environment, but whether the impact is good or bad depends on the type of agriculture used. Sustainable agriculture puts back what it takes from the environment, while factory farming pollutes our air, water and soil.
Meat and dairy production in the United States has changed dramatically over the past 30 years. Small family farms have been replaced by huge livestock facilities, where animals suffer horribly, workers are mistreated, the environment is being destroyed, and where rural communities are falling apart.
Family farmers are being forced out of business at an alarming rate, and hundreds of small farmers sell their land every week. The dramatic expansion of industrial agriculture has made it increasingly difficult for small family farmers in the US, but many small family farms have found hope within the sustainable food movement.
Animals on industrial farms are fed the cheapest grains and waste products in order to fatten them quickly. This leads to widespread health problems, so low doses of antibiotics are also added to the feed. The result is unhealthy animals and unhealthy food for consumers.
Irradiation is used to increase the shelf life of the food so it can travel longer distances and keep for as long as possible. This processing method has not been properly tested for safety and it depletes the vitamin content of food.
The significant corporate consolidation of global food production has created a food system that values quantity over quality. Every single decision a farmer, or corporation, makes about growing or raising a certain kind of food affects the final product. Cutting corners on the quality of animal feed, waste management, level of training for farm workers, processing methods and distribution all contribute to the safety of our food.
Industrial agriculture relies on machinery to produce food and trucks to transport the food throughout the country, and likewise consumes massive amounts of fuel and energy. Sustainable farms work to minimize their energy use, and since their products are bought locally, minimal fuel is burned in order to transport their goods.
Genetic Engineering (GE) is the process of transferring genes from one plant or animal to another. The technology has not been properly tested, so no one knows if GE food is safe to eat. Currently, crops are genetically engineered, and some believe that animals are next.
Sustainable foods are healthier than industrial food because of higher levels of “good” fats and nutrients in grass-fed animal products and lower pesticide residues in organic foods. Meanwhile, industrially-produced food is detrimental to our health because it leads to outbreaks of food-borne illness, contributes to antibiotic resistance, and pollutes drinking water.
Farmers throughout the world once raised thousands of different animal breeds and plant varieties. However, since today’s industrial farms rely upon only a few specialized livestock breeds and plant varieties, thousands of non-commercial animal breeds and crop varieties have disappeared, along with the valuable genetic diversity they possessed. Fortunately, a growing number of sustainable farmers are preserving agricultural variety and protecting biodiversity by raising “heritage” or “heirloom” animal breeds, fruits, and vegetables.
Artificial hormones are implanted in beef and dairy cattle to make them grow faster and produce more milk. The US government claims the hormones are safe, but the European Union has banned hormones because of a possible link between hormones and some types of cancer.
Mad cow disease is transmitted when one cow eats the brain and spinal tissue of an infected cow. Humans can also contract vCJD (the human form of mad cow) this way, and over 150 people have died from this disease since the 1990’s.
Organic food regulated by the USDA, and organic farmers must follow specific guidelines in order to label their foods “organic”. For example, animals cannot be given antibiotics or hormones, chemical pesticides cannot be used, and meat cannot be irradiated.
Pasture-raised animals spend most of their time outdoors, where they’re able to eat nutritious grasses and other plants as they would in nature. In addition to dramatically improving the welfare of farm animals, pasturing helps reduce environmental damage, and yields meats, eggs, and dairy products which are tastier and more nutritious than foods produced on industrial farms.
Pesticides are sprayed on crops that are fed to farm animals. Residues are stored in the animals’ fat and tissue, and enter our bodies when we eat the meat. Pesticides have been linked to many medical problems.
Current agricultural policy promotes industrial farming and neglects small farmers. In many cases, our tax money goes to support research and operating costs for large food corporations.
Rather than banning the use of new technologies before they’re shown to be safe, our federal agencies allow potentially dangerous products to enter the food supply, putting public health at risk.
The new development philosophy helps those in poverty help themselves. In both rural and urban areas, individuals are being encouraged (or taking it upon themselves) to take control of their own food security. Urban communities are reclaiming brown-fields and, using sustainable agricultural techniques, are providing their communities with healthful, fresh food while creating small businesses around selling these products to their communities.
Artificial bST is produced using recombinant DNA technology (biotechnology), also called Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH), and known as rbST or rBGH for short. When injected into cows, rBGH increases milk production 10-15 percent and in some cases up to 40 percent.
The US meatpacking industry is dominated by a handful of corporations that process massive quantities of meat in huge plants. As a result of inadequate food safety standards and lax inspection practices by the USDA, these corporations are able to operate unsanitary facilities and send out meat contaminated with dangerous bacteria. These facilities are also extremely dangerous, and meat-packing is among the most hazardous jobs in the nation.
Some industrial livestock facilities produce as much sewage as a small city, but they are not required to treat all this waste. Instead, the waste is held in large pools and spread on farm fields where it often runs off into nearby water systems.
American consumers are drinking more bottled water every year, in part because they think it is somehow safer than tap water. Tap water is generally just as safe, clean, and healthy as bottled water—in many cases even more so. By taking back the tap, you can save money, protect your health, and help prevent environmental and social problems as well.
The waste from industrial farms leaks into streams, lakes, oceans and ground water with bacteria, antibiotic residue, pesticides and chemical fertilizer. This pollution can lead to the destruction of aquatic ecosystems and contamination of human drinking water.
Workers on industrial farms and in meat processing facilities work in hazardous conditions, and are underpaid and mistreated.
New England Journal of Medicine: The current generation of young people may have shorter life spans than their parents, a reversal of two centuries of increasing life expectancy.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest reports that the typical American diet—too high in saturated fat, sodium, and sugar and too low in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, calcium, and fiber— contributes to four of the six leading causes of death and increases the risk of numerous diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, obesity, hypertension, stroke, osteoporosis, and many cancers. A boy born in the U.S. in 2000 had a one in three chance of being diagnosed with diabetes by the age of 50 (closer to two in five for African American or Hispanic boys). A girl born in 2000 had a two in five chance (nearly one in two if African-American or Hispanic).