Tuesday, May 1, 2012

What exactly is riboflavin?

All sorts of great questions being asked around here in the past two days:

How much fast food is okay to eat?
What is sorbic acid?
Where does our fruit come from?
If organic food is better for you, why is it so expensive?

I wish I had tape recorded the last two days of science -- I can only remember a small fraction of the amazing things that have come out of my students' mouths.

It started yesterday, when I showed a ten minute section of video from the Nourish: Food and Community curriculum published by The Center for Ecoliteracy. It's available in DVD form, but you can also do a 7 day rental through Amazon for $1.99. Totally worth it.

The room was silent during the screening. And I mean silent like no one was wiggling, tapping a pencil, tipping their chair back in that annoying way they do, none of it. They were rapt, watching the section about Seed to Table. It showed an industrial food system, where corn is grown as a monocrop with the use of pesticides and fertilizers, then trucked to a factory where it's made into a number of food additives including high fructose corn syrup. In contrast, a local food system was highlighted. Heirloom tomatoes were harvested and taken to a nearby farmer's market for sale. After the video, the questions started.

Fast food: I said I wouldn't tell them how much fast food to eat or not eat, but to think about the risks, and talk to their doctors if they have questions. I sometimes feel I am walking a fine line between presenting information to them and preaching a certain lifestyle. I don't want to be accused of crossing the line and telling them what they or their parents do is "wrong." My truest answer would be: try to eat as little of it as possible; try not to make it a regular part of your diet.

One student shared about his father's struggles with diabetes, and how difficult it is living with this disease. So we talked about diabetes for a bit, about how sometimes you just get it, or it runs in your family. But more and more people are developing it early in life, and diet seems to be a primary factor in this new trend. Will you get it from eating fast food once? No. It's one of those things that happens over time. Thinking about the consequences of their actions over time is not natural for many kids of this age. They are in the moment. They are young. My job is to help start them on the path of thinking further ahead than next week, of knowing the long term risks of their lifestyles.

Then the big question: Why is organic food so expensive? To me, that question opens a can of worms that would take more than a school year to answer for fifth and sixth graders. There is so much history, science, nutrition, economics and politics that you need to understand how we've gotten to where we've gotten in this country with our food systems. And I am not nearly expert enough to teach them this thoroughly.

But I am qualified to help them start asking the questions. This curriculum is an ideal medium for germinating the big questions that are getting my students thinking critically about the world around them. Today we analyzed diagrams of industrial and local food systems and started looking at ingredients lists on food packaging. We'll continue this for the rest of the week, and my guess is that more questions will be asked than answered in the next few days.

But that's ok. My students are beginning to act as thoughtful scientists, thoughtful citizens of the world. The answers aren't going to come quickly.

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