Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Guest Post: Grade 11 Geography Students With a Food Systems Win!

A week or so ago I received an email from Kingsley G. Hurlington, the Head of Geography at York Region's Bur Oak Secondary School. He was writing to tell me about a class project for his Grade 11 Geography of Food course and reading about it, I asked him if his students might want to write a guest post about it. Here's their post, and kudos to him and them.

The Check Out Hunger Project
By: Shubhankar Bhatt and Malvin Lo

What are teens doing in the week before Christmas? Shopping, of course!

Amidst the hustle and bustle of aggressive shoppers, we were out searching for the perfect gifts. Along with rest of the students in our class we were not at the mall: we were at the supermarket. We were not shopping for cool technology or new gadgets. We were seeking a much better gift – quality food for needy people in our community.

We are students taking a course called Geography of Food (Regional Geography CGD 3M) which was created by our teacher Kingsley Hurlington at York Region District School Board. Throughout the course, we have been exploring issues of local food systems. We have been following our food from farmer’s field to our forks and beyond. We have learned about the beauty of an organic apple orchard by visiting one, controversies in food labelling rules, the abundance and promotion of processed foods, and the level of control large food companies have over our personal health. We have come to realize that we are surrounded by the social and economic phenomenon that is food, and have developed a sense of what a fifty-cent chocolate bar purchase really means to farmers, corporations, and society as a whole.

We have come to understand that our choices matter. Our choices demonstrate our support for free-range organic chickens versus mistreated caged ones. Our choices illustrate our support for local farmers, or our support for outsourced child labour. And that our choice of the stuff we purchase is a lifestyle choice, a health choice, an ethical choice, and a moral choice.

Armed with a wealth of knowledge, we headed out into the real world ready to explore the production, processing, and politics of food through each assignment. Mr. Hurlington ensured that all of our assignments had us asking difficult and disruptive questions: What kinds of food can we grow at our own houses? Why do convenience foods have ingredient lists that are dozens of items long? What does real food taste like (many of us had never had local Ontario strawberries, fresh bakery bread or artisanal cheese…)?

Our most recent assignment challenged us to head to the supermarket looking to improve on the $10 food bags that customers can purchase for donation to their food bank. The corporate bags cost $10 but were they really worth that amount? And what could be said about the quality of the food that was in them? We investigated items in the food bag and began questioning what the motive was for these corporate bags: nutrients were low, sodium was high (11,000 mg in one bag!) and the kinds of food were simplistic. Cans of soup and cartons of crackers hardly seemed like quality food!

We concluded that it was time to challenge the system, and make our own better bags. With ten real dollars in hand, our classmates spent hours searching the supermarket for nutritionally rich foods to create an optimized bag of food. What we discovered was that a group of 16-year-olds can create food bags many times more nutritious than big brand name supermarkets. Our bags contained more good calories, more plant protein, more fibre and a wide range of micronutrients while containing far less sodium, saturated fat and cholesterol. Our bags contained staples like dried beans and brown rice. Soon enough, the school took notice and teachers began bringing their own food bags and the school ended up with over 45 bags of culturally appropriate and nutritious food headed straight for the Markham Food Bank.

With the course coming to a close, we have come to understand that this wasn’t just an assignment; it was a push for a change in society. Like the food bags, so much of our food system and what we eat is hidden away from us. So many people buy those brown paper food bags thinking that they are doing a good thing for people in need but never really knowing what is inside them. Don’t the neediest people in our community deserve healthy food too?

This course has given us an overwhelming sense of personal and global awareness. When we handed our bags in, it symbolized the power that we all have to challenge the status quo. It reminds us that we can all take control over our own health. We have become aware of the meaning behind food and what’s at stake, not just personally, but as a society.