Ag in the Classroom Helps Kids Understand Where Their Food Comes From
When presented with the image above and asked, “Where do these come from?” most Kindergarten through twelfth grade (K-12) students will respond, “The store.” While this is technically correct (just ask an argumentative middle schooler!), grocery stores, convenience stores, food co-ops, and farmers markets are not the source of these nutrient-rich, healthy snacks. The plants that local farmers raise are the true source of these foods that allow our kids to grow, think, and play. In order to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables, youth of all ages need a greater understanding of how these crops grow; who is involved; and the cultural, nutritional, and economic significance of the crops. Our United States agricultural sector is known worldwide for providing a reliable source of food for local communities and global partners alike. However, only 2% of the U.S. population is involved in production agriculture, and most people are two or three generations removed from a farm. These statistics have led to a low level of agricultural literacy. An agriculturally literate person understands and can communicate the sources and value of agriculture as it affects quality of life. It is vitally important to the health of our country that students in our K-12 classrooms develop an understanding of agriculture’s critical role in their everyday lives. These students are the next generation of consumers, parents, policy creators, and decision makers. How do we grow Ag Literacy? The Minnesota Agriculture in the Classroom program (MAITC) and Ag in the Classroom programs across the country are working to increase agricultural literacy in K-12 classrooms, and they are using resources designed to grow students’ knowledge and appreciation for the food and fiber system that we rely on every day. These resources allow K-12 educators in the areas of science, social studies, language arts, math, and health/nutrition to integrate agricultural content into instruction to meet academic standards. Michele Melius, a seventh- and eighth-grade social studies teacher in Minnesota, describes this concept. “There are so many connections between agriculture and core subjects,” says Melius. “If you want your students to really grasp a concept and relate to it, use a variety of teaching methods to apply agricultural examples that will encourage a more authentic and relevant learning experience.” An example of using agriculture as a context for learning can be easily illustrated by Laurel Avery’s class in Minnesota. A basic writing assignment blossomed into the adoption of the Honeycrisp Apple as Minnesota’s state fruit by the Minnesota State Legislature. The students used the apple, developed at the University of Minnesota, to learn about plant production and breeding, the legislative process, and also to hone their persuasive speaking and writing skills. Academic standards in science, social studies, and language arts were met while allowing these students to gain knowledge of agricultural production. I can only assume that the number of Honeycrisp Apples these students consumed skyrocketed! Apples aren’t the only agricultural crop boosting students’ achievement and improving their food choices. A huge increase in the number of school gardens has allowed students to participate in the food growing process, apply classroom information, and also improve their consumption of fresh produce. Comments of students who participated in school gardens include: “Carrots grow under the ground?!” “I never knew peas I picked would taste so good.” There is convincing research showing that school gardens and accompanying educational components can increase participating children’s vegetable consumption and willingness to try new vegetables (AHA-Mozaffarian 2012, Langellotto 2012, Scherr 2013, Ratcliffe 2011, Parmer 2009, McAleese 2007, Rauzon 2010). What can you do? Become a student of agriculture! Natasha Mortenson, president of the Minnesota Association of Agricultural Educators, states, “Who eats? Everybody eats! You owe it to yourself and your livelihood to know how it gets to your plate.” Recognizing the science, engineering, economic principles, and intensive labor that goes into producing our food can hugely influence individuals’ attitudes, appreciation, and understanding of agriculture and the foods we eat. Seek out accurate information about agriculture, visit a farm, and talk to farmers to get first-hand information about how the food you eat is being produced. Visit a community garden or try your hand at gardening to experience how vegetables are grown. Share this information with students, teachers, and anyone else you can find! Encourage the educators in your community to infuse agricultural into their curricula. Agriculture in the Classroom programs across the country have a wide variety of free educational materials to assist teachers in developing their curricula. Currently, over 40,000 students in over 700 schools across just Minnesota utilize our AgMag and AgMag Jr. publications. The MAITC website is home to additional resources such as our Minnesota School Garden Guide, Food for Thought Geography curricular resources, and the Curriculum Matrix. Lesson plans, Ag Literacy Grants (maximum of $1,000) to fund agricultural projects, field trips, and other ag education opportunities are all provided on the MAITC site and in other Ag in the Classroom programs. MAITC recently received funds through the USDA Specialty Crop Block Grant to create educational materials and professional development for teachers to increase awareness and consumption of specialty crops. We are looking forward to hosting a specialty crop-themed Summer Teacher Tour in 2017, providing a specialty crop lesson booklet for teachers, producing a student AgMag focused on fruits and vegetables, and creating farm-to-table videos. There are many additional organizations that support agricultural literacy education and that build awareness for agricultural crops such as fruits and vegetables. Some additional sources for educators include Farm to School Network, USDA Team Nutrition, Jeffers Foundation—A Garden for Every School. Please help us inform educators in your community about the endless opportunities to include agriculture in their students’ learning environment! Let’s take action and develop agriculturally literate K-12 students who will grow into agriculturally literate adults who might answer the question, “Where does your food come from?” a little differently.