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Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy

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Food Systems

We want to understand how people, and children in particular, think about food in relation to food systems (i.e. how food is grown, processed, marketed, and consumed) and the impact of the food system on the environment. This insight helps us create educational materials that encourage children to reflect and purposefully act upon their world to promote their own health and the health of the planet.


Completed Research

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Today’s children, as tomorrow’s adults, will inherit an industrial food system that is harmful to our health and to the environment. In order to develop curricula to teach students about our food system, we need to understand what students know and how they process related information. The Students’ Understandings of Food Systems and Global Sustainability study, conducted in 1999, was a precursor to the LiFE curriculum series which helped us learn how children think about food in relation to the technological and social aspects of our food systems (i.e. how food is grown, processed, marketed, and consumed) and about the impact of the food system on the environment.

We conducted 24 one-hour qualitative interviews with children, using foods and word-cards as props for conversational and in-depth investigation. We found that students held a “black-box” (mysterious and undeveloped) understanding of what happens to food between the farm and the store.

When describing how food gets transformed, students used reasoning (e.g. “can I make something up?”) rather than knowledge. They based their reasoning on the look and taste of the food, i.e. things they had experienced, rather than the quality or safety of the food. Regarding transportation of food from farm to table, they described trucks as the major mode of transportation for food, and also explained that trucks were a source of pollution. Yet, they did not relate the transport of food to pollution.

In addition, students described technology as objects that do “things people cannot do” and factories as magical places that create uniform foods (e.g. cereals that are all exactly the same size and shape). All students stated they knew little about what happens in factories. The results of these interviews, and further studies regarding students’ understandings of food systems, were the basis for the development of the Growing Food and Farm to Table & Beyond modules of LiFE. This study was funded by a National Institutes of Health Science Education Partnership Award.

Related Publications:

As we teach students about the food system and determine the impact of our curricula, we are interested in knowing how their thinking develops. This is also known as “learning progressions” in the field of science education. Learning progressions have been used to investigate how students learn about various scientific topics.

During the Growing Food and Farm to Table & Beyond books of the LiFE series, students investigate and learn about our food system through science education. We developed a food system learning progression of six stages that ranged from being able to name parts of the food system to being able to discuss the food system as a synthesized whole. To learn more about the food system learning progression, how we assessed it, and view sample students’ answers before and after the curriculum, please see the presentation below. This study was funded by a National Institutes of Health Science Education Partnership Award.

Related Publications:

Young adolescents aged 11–13 have increased independence and often spend more time with friends than they did when they were children. These new habits often involve purchasing food away from home. Typically, these foods include unhealthy options such as chips and candy, sweetened beverages, and fast food, and tend to not include healthier options such as vegetables, fruits, and other basic whole foods.

Middle School Students Developing Agency was an in-depth investigation of eight students who received the Choice, Control & Change curriculum of the LiFE curriculum series. Multiple sources of qualitative data including classroom observations, reviews of students’ written class work and projects, and one-on-one interviews were analyzed to determine how students’ understandings developed in relation to the three domains of social cognitive theory (SCT): personal, behavioral, and environmental. We found that what moved students toward personal agency was how they perceived the interactions of these three SCT domains:

  • Personal & Environmental interactionstudents recognized tension between their desire to be healthy and the high sugar, salt, and fat foods that their environment provides and encourages (also known as an “obesogenic” environment).

  • Environmental & Behavioral interactionstudents strived to overcome barriers, i.e. the habits and cravings adolescents developed from the obesogenic environment.

  • Behavioral & Personal interactionstudents planned for change by using their knowledge and skills to set goals and develop strategies to make food and activity choices that achieve their desired personal outcomes.

As a result, the young adolescents developed agency by increasing competence in their ability to make healthful choices.

This study found that when students learn about food, nutrition, physical activity and health using a system-blame (instead of a victim-blame) approach, they respond with constructive anger toward the food system that inspires them to initiate positive change.

Stay tuned for publications about this research. This study was funded by a National Institutes of Health Science Education Partnership Award.