How many times have you heard “you are what you eat”? What do you think it means? It means that your health depends on how healthfully you eat. More and more, we're finding that the foods that are healthiest for us are also the foods that protect the health of the planet.
Food Label Forensics
Have students bring clean food labels from home. Each student will only use one label, but they should all bring several to ensure that everyone will get to work with a label from a different product. Go around the room and have them read their product's ingredients to the class. Before you begin, reassure them that it's okay if they have a hard time pronouncing some of the ingredients. As they read each one, write it on the board; whenever an ingredient is repeated, tally a mark by it.
In the end, you'll likely have a very long list and you'll see by the tallies which ingredients are most common. Do you know what these ingredients are? Have the students come up to the board and circle ingredients they are familiar with (likely things such as milk, sugar, and wheat). What's left? Now it's time for some food label forensics. Find out what these things are, what they're doing in your food, and what they might do to your health. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has a food additives safety program. At www.cspinet.org/reports/chemcuisine.htm you can find a comprehensive list of these unpronounceable ingredients and what sort of health impacts might be associated with them.
To get an idea of how a chemical pesticide or fertilizer ends up in your food, fill a container with water and add a few drops of food coloring. Place a stalk of celery in the water. When plants are growing, they drink water from the soil they are growing in. To speed up the process for our experiment, we've left the soil out and are letting our plant simply drink all the water it wants. A conventional farm uses strong chemicals called pesticides to help keep weeds and bugs away from the plants, but where does the pesticide go after it's been sprayed? It lands on the plant and the soil and eventually ends up in the water the plant is drinking. The food coloring represents the pesticides. Wait twenty-four hours. What happened? Ask your students what would happen if they ate this celery.
Grade schools in Olympia, Washington, went completely organic and still managed to cut lunch costs by two cents per meal. Their program includes working directly with local organic farms, and they cut out desserts, opting instead to offer fruits to satisfy students' sweet cravings.