The Pitchfork to Plate Journey

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5th graders learn about food systems--and much more

From the Summer 2012 Caller

By Maggie Bendicksen

Seven years ago, our 5th graders weren’t as engaged in social studies as much as we would have hoped. Unlike the 3rd grade Lewis & Clark curriculum, there was nothing for the kids to see, hear, taste, or smell about our study of colonial America. In their reflections, students often remarked that social studies was their least favorite subject. This seemed like such a shame, as social studies can be the backbone of an engaging, integrated, and progressive curriculum. Something needed to change.
At the time, in early 2005, the West Coast was abuzz with a curiosity about the food we eat. Alice Waters (of Chez Panisse fame) started the Edible Schoolyard in the Bay Area, and Eric Schlosser had recently published Fast Food Nation, followed soon after by Chew on This, a corollary for children. Next up was Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and the New York Times re-discovering Portland as the food capital of the country.
People were talking about how our food moves from pitchfork to plate, and we were intrigued. Could this be our new focus? After carefully reviewing national social studies standards, we realized that we needed to include a “system” of something being produced from start to finish, as well as a significant and developmentally appropriate global connection for the kids to explore.
Once we had a basic framework in mind, we gathered together all of the history teachers, grades 6 to 12, and asked for their blessing to make the change. I remember Upper School history teacher Peter Shulman asking if we would still teach the kids how to question, research, analyze, and synthesize. We answered yes, and our pitchfork to plate journey began in earnest.
At the same time, the school hired a new food services director, Hen Truong, who was interested in reshaping the Barn’s offerings. We quickly partnered with Hen to discover what the school community’s “dream Barn” might look like.
The timing seemed perfect.
After a busy summer of planning and with the help of David Yudkin (father of Koby ’11 and Sadie ’12, and co-owner of Hot Lips Pizza with wife Jeana Edelman ’77), we began to develop a list of essential questions, as well as a conceptual framework and skill benchmarks. We decided to focus on helping students understand how food moves from farms to farmer’s markets, processing and packaging facilities, warehouse distribution centers, supermarkets, and restaurants, and ultimately to our plates. With so many resources just a bus ride away, the students would be able to experience firsthand this complex and fascinating set of systems.
We kicked off the study in the fall of 2006 with a string of field trips so the kids would be immersed in the pitchfork to plate process. We visited a wheat farm in Eastern Oregon, an organic family farm near Hillsboro (where kids munched straight from the vine), the Portland Farmer’s Market (to stay within a budget and interview farmers), the Wheat Marketing Center, where we studied the science, trade, shipping, and economics of different varieties of wheat, and Norpac, a massive conventional food processing and packaging facility in Salem. We challenged ourselves to plan, shop, and cook a 150-mile lunch for Valentine’s Day, a difficult task in Oregon in February! We also visited restaurants for behind-the-scenes tours and to discover the many decisions restaurant owners make when purchasing food, designing menus, and serving the public.
Over the years, we have modified the curriculum. Some field trips have been added, others dropped. More age-appropriate nonfiction materials have been published, which has made researching easier for our 5th graders. When What the World Eats was published in 2008, we added it to our curriculum and created a fully integrated research project, with the help of librarians Lisa Ellenberg and Dan Woytek, that focuses on how different cultures approach food production and consumption. When something relevant bubbles up, we make room for emergent “real time” action projects. The students threw themselves into the One Ounce Campaign, which challenged each person on campus to reduce daily waste by one ounce per day to meet the school’s “zero waste” goals.
What has remained the same is our commitment to helping this age group (situated at the fascinating crossroads of concrete thinking and abstract thought) engage in true social studies, nudging them to see not only the facts and history of food, but the many shades of gray that go into how families make the decisions they make. It would be easy for the kids to take an all good/all evil approach to the organic/conventional debate or the whole/local/slow food vs. fast food conversation. What’s harder and far more interesting is to try to understand why people make the decisions that they do and how economics, culture, and practicality figure into the equation.
After our trip to New Seasons to shop for our 150-mile lunch, the kids reflected on how surprised they were at all of the 87 (and counting) considerations we brainstormed about that consumers go through when buying food for their families— including price, availability, seasonality, taste, packaging, and whether it is prepared or not.
One part of the curriculum that we’ve kept is Chew on This, an extremely opinionated and sensational “history” of the fast food industry. Kids are fascinated and repulsed, then fascinated some more by this book. The quote, “A single fast-food hamburger now may contain meat from hundreds or even thousands of different cattle” catches kids’ attention, as does the section that describes the bugs that create the color additive that makes McDonald’s strawberry shakes pink. It’s not hard to grab the 5th graders’ focus with factoids like these, so we run with their interest while taking the opportunity to talk about the author’s intent, sources, and persuasive techniques. We also examine how advertising and marketing affect our choices, whether we realize it or not. One of our favorite things to do when kids tell us they aren’t affected by advertising is to ask them to pile all of our shoes in the center of the room and sort them by brand. “Oh,” is the collective response. “Maybe the ads do work.”
In honor of Michael Pollan’s now-famous quote, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” and to balance Chew’s negative bent of what not to eat, we started a series of Wacky Wednesdays, a chance for parents to bring in a whole food that kids might not have tasted before and to share a personal connection with it and fascinating facts about the plant. Students have tried jicama and lime, starfruit, unsweetened coconut, edamame, and other delicious and appealing treats they might have balked at if served at the family dinner table.
Throughout the five years, we’ve tried to be mindful of creating room for hope in the curriculum. Our study can be heavy and frightening at times, filled often with what not to do instead of what to do. At the close of Chew on This, we team with art teacher Peggy Schauffler ’78 to dream about what kids can do to create a more hopeful future. We’ve made a hope quilt, hope prayer flags, and t-shirts that we hope will spark conversation.
We also often end the year with an action project so the 5th graders feel they are capable of having an impact on their own community— part of the school’s mission of supporting “inspired learning leading to responsible action.” Last year, for instance, Spring Festival coordinators came to us with the challenge of reducing the number of disposable water bottles at the festival, a real problem the kids decided to try to solve. Leslie Stiff Arm ’18 remarked, “Honestly, I have learned so much about sustainability that sometimes my head hurts thinking about it. Like the fact that the 5th grade got the whole Lower School to participate in a contest to keep plastic water bottles from going to the ocean. It wasn’t a huge impact on the earth, but hey, every act counts. Also, I have started being more aware of composting and recycling as much as I can, without going insane.”
One spring, we teamed with Hen and facilities director Eric Shawn on what we called the “blue plate special,” a research project that helped the school decide to move from disposable to reusable plates. For another year-end project, we received a grant to seed various student proposals, which included an anti-idling campaign for cars on campus, planting the Lower School garden, and creating sustainability presentations for other schools.
Matthew Bernstein ’15 felt that the action projects helped him want to be a part of positive and significant changes in the world around him. He wrote, “I now live and breathe sustainability! We are next-door neighbors with my grandparents, and I am teaching them about sustainability. This has been a great year for me. I really enjoyed learning about all of the large and small ways to improve the health of the planet. I was encouraged to do lots of little projects on my own, and I have liked that.”
As a teacher, there is nothing better than witnessing students realize they are capable of changing the world, even one water bottle or ounce at a time. I am so grateful to work in a school that encourages teachers to take risks and to create meaningful, relevant curriculum with children. It truly doesn’t get any better than that.

150-mile Lunch: In February?

We had a challenge, a yummy challenge. The 5th graders had to make a palatable lunch for Valentine’s Day from ingredients that all come from within 150 miles of Catlin Gabel. The menu: leek soup, salad, baked potatoes, apples, and pears. We went shopping, we prepared, we cooked, we did everything ourselves. And we had a good time! Here’s how we did it. We hopped on the bus to New Seasons, and entered en masse (much to the terror of innocent shoppers), each got assigned a product to buy, and spread out in small groups, taking a tour and picking up items along the way, considering price, quality, past experience, packaging, and how far away the food was grown. Eventually we finished and headed home. Cooking commenced immediately. Everyone pitched in and with minor adult supervision we shredded, dried, sliced, smashed, cooked, and served. And boy, was it worth it. Try it sometime. I dare you! —Rowan Treece ’19

Maggie Bendicksen has taught 5th grade at Catlin Gabel since 2002. Her sons Jacob ’16 and Liam ’18 survived 5th grade and its pitchfork to plate curriculum, and no longer beg for McDonald’s French fries as they drive down Burnside. Burgerville is another story.