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There's No Business Like Food Business

By Michi Thacker

On the day of the field trip, I explained to the students and adults who joined us: "Your task is to find as much contact information about your product as possible. Record everything you can find on the label or package, and be sure to pay attention to accuracy when you copy down information." I distributed clipboards, pencils, and data-gathering sheets. Because several parents joined us, I was able to assign a small group to each adult. The groups enthusiastically traveled together down the aisles, hunting for their items, pulling them from the shelves, helping each other inspect the boxes and packages for the critical information, and diligently recording it.

They listed brand names, parent companies if applicable, distributors, and any other potential contact information they could get from the labeling on their food items — phone numbers, addresses, web or email addresses. A few students needed to ask the store manager for additional help to find information about farms and distributors for the fresh produce. (Fortunately, the manager was welcoming and friendly, considering that I did not have the forethought to alert him ahead of time.)

After gathering the initial contact information, we returned to school and I assigned a research project. I ex-plained to the class that the goal was to find out where our food had come from and how far our food had traveled from farms to factories to store. I gave students a list of questions about their chosen products to try to answer when they contacted the products' manufacturer. (While I didn't expect that each of them would be able to find answers to all of the questions, I wanted them to ask them all in order to get as much detail as possible.) They asked the following questions:

It was clear that this research project was going to require too much assistance to be completed at school, so I assigned the project as homework. I included a note to parents on the homework sheet: "Parents — please work on this research together with your child! Even if your child is capable of making the phone calls, they may come across people who do not take their questions seriously. Also, if you do not have Internet access at home, please let me know so that we can arrange for some help at school."

I gave students two weeks to complete their research to make sure that parents could find time to work with them to finish it. (Phoning can be complicated with time zones and children in school the majority of the day.) I had already introduced this project to parents at our first parent meeting, so most of them had had opportunities to ask questions, and meeting notes went home to those who didn't attend. I knew this was a lot to ask of parents, but parent involvement is embedded in our school's philosophy. Since parents choose the food children eat, I hoped that parents and children working side by side might encourage some interesting discussion at home. What I didn't know was how truly difficult the assignment would be.

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