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Food for Thought Lesson Plans

Investigating Food Systems

Grade Level

Grades 6-8


Students will gain an awareness of the steps and descriptions of various food systems and different foods from their region. From their research, they will explore and analyze the connections between food choices and food systems and the costs and benefits of each. In addition, they will learn about the individuals involved with the production at each stage and their job role. Lastly, students will analyze the advantages and disadvantages of different scales of food distribution (local, regional, national, and global).


Two-five, 50-minute class periods

  • Crop: a cultivated plant that is grown as food; especially a grain, fruit, or vegetable
  • Production: growing and/or raising plants and animals
  • Harvest: the collection of raw foods from its source
  • Processing: changing the structure, composition, character, or condition of food or raw materials
  • Distribution (wholesale/retail): the process of dividing up and delivering products to various places
  • Compost: decayed organic material used as a plant fertilizer
  • Dispose: to get rid of by throwing away or giving or selling to someone else
  • Agriculture System: the people, activities, and resources involved in getting food from farms, ranches, oceans, and other sources to consumers' plates
  • Food System: the system that produces, processes, distributes, and consumes food from seed to table (also referred to as the Food Supply System or Agricultural Supply Chain)
  • Commodity: any raw material or primary agricultural product that can be bought and sold
  • Import: bringing products from another country
  • Export: sending products to another country
Background—Agricultural Connections (Should align with NALOs selected for this lesson)

Although we all eat food every day, most of us don't take the time to think about where it was grown or raised, and how it arrived on our table. This lesson was designed to help students develop an understanding of the food system by building on their prior knowledge and experiences. Students will begin by learning the steps in the food system. Then, they will choose a food item and through discussion and research, will trace that item from farm to table. In the last activity, students will consider the activities or processes that occur within each step in the food system and the people involved. Students will also learn about the individuals that move food from farm to table: farmers, processors, wholesalers, retailers, food service providers, marketers, and consumers. But many may not have considered additional people and influences on the system: government, agricultural technologies, transportation, and international trade organizations. An additional takeaway is to become aware that there are also non-human parts of the chain as well: land, water, energy, climate, and weather.

Interest Approach - Engagement
  1. Begin the lesson by asking students to look at two different types of potatoes (one is a locally grown variety and the other from out of state). If potatoes are not available, other options include apples, maple syrup, carrots, lettuce and any other produce or food products where you can get an example grown in Minnesota and another example grown in another state or country. Ask students to brainstorm the similarities and differences they observe. Discuss as a large group those observations that are common and those that are unique to these potatoes. Responses may be written on the board using a Venn diagram or written individually by each student on a provided copy.
    Questions that may be helpful with the discussion:
    • What is similar in these food products?
    • What is unique or different about these food products?
    • Use your 5 senses to see if they provide you with any helpful information
  2. When the discussion slows, tell the students that one has come from a local farm or garden, and the other from Idaho. Follow this by asking the broad question, “What do you now know or assume about these two potatoes just by knowing where they were grown?" Even though they look different, it's hard to know much about them by looking at them. Encourage students to think about the process from farm to table. Have students consider this question, “Is one potato better for us than the other?" Why or why not? Encourage students to share their responses but keep the question open until you finish Step 3 below.
  3. Next, ask students if they have ever heard of a "food system?" Answers will vary.
    A Food System is the system that produces, processes, distributes, and consumes food from seed to table (also referred to as the Food Supply System or Agricultural Supply Chain).
    Randomly write the steps of a food system or supply chain on your board: producing, processing, distributing and consuming. Ask students to take their post-it notes and write down the steps of the food system supply chain that you have randomly written on the board. Once they have completed this, students should place them in the order that they believe they go in to move crops from the farm to the table. Ask them to share their answers.
  4. When you have gone over their responses, show Follow That Food: Carrot Edition video. Ask students to identify the steps that they see in the video as well as the order in which they occur. At the conclusion of the video, give students Steps Along the Way worksheet to help students decide the different steps that their item will take to reach the table. Repeat the question, "Is one potato better for us than the other?" Answers will vary; however, students should start to see how the sequence comes together and that each potato may follow the food system in a different way. Follow this by asking, "Are all food systems the same? If not, how do they vary?"
Activity 1:
  1. Create a Glossary of Key Words in order to make certain everyone is familiar with all the food system terms, ask them to define producer (farmer), processor, distributor, wholesale, retail, consumer, and food systems.
    • There are many approaches to vocabulary acquisition. One option is to use sketch noting. This method is accessible for all learners (all reading/writing levels, English learners...). Students divided a sheet of paper into squares, write a vocab word in each corner and then drew a picture that represents that word. Students can keep these sketch notes and use them as a reference for the PowerPoint activity (Activity 4). Examples can be viewed at
  2. This is an example of the basic steps in a food system. However, they may occur in a different order, and some steps may be skipped. Students may also be able to think of additional steps not listed here.
    Farm/Production Harvest Storage Processing Distribution Retailing Consuming Compost
    Farm/Production: the growing and/or raising of a crop or animal
    Harvest/Storing: the collection of raw food (fruits, vegetables, meat, milk, etc.) or materials (wool, fur, hides, etc.) from its source.
    Storage: Storage is required for certain foods and items that are not immediately eaten.
    Processing: involves changing the structure, composition, character, or condition of food.
    Distribution: the process of dividing up and delivering food to various places.
    Packaging: protects food from spoilage and allows for easy transport and purchasing.
    Retailing: selling food or items to the consumer.
    Disposing: to get rid of by throwing away or giving or selling to someone else.
    Composting: decayed organic material used as a plant fertilizer.
  3. Ask students to share any experiences they have with consuming sweet corn. Show students Sweet Corn & Green Peas in Minnesota Counties (Map 17) that shows where sweet corn and green peas are grown in Minnesota as well as Vegetable Canning and Freezing Sites in Minnesota (Map 28) that shows where sweet corn, peas and other vegetables are frozen and canned in our state. As a class or large group walk through each step of the food system and how it relates to the sweet corn that might be served in your school cafeteria. Ideas and examples:
    • Production - Minnesota farmers grow sweet corn, reference the map and discuss why the areas of the state where sweet corn is grown is suited to producing this crop
    • Harvesting - Discuss with students when sweet corn is harvested and how farmers work to make this crop available to us over several weeks in the mid-late summer
    • Storage - Sweet corn is very perishable so it is not stored more than several days at the farm or a processing facility. When it is stored it must be done in a refrigerated area
    • Processing - Sweet corn is frozen or canned so it can be enjoyed in the fall, winter and spring when the corn is not being harvested
    • Distribution - large trucks transport the frozen or canned products to consumers Packaging - packaging into cans or freezer safe bags is most often done at the processing facility
    • Retailing - sweet corn is sold by the ear at roadside stands, farmers markets and grocery stores in the summer. It is sold in its frozen or canned form year-round
    • Consuming - we eat and enjoy sweet corn!
    • Disposing - uneaten corn or the cob (if eating it right of the cob) can be thrown away or composted. The packaging can also be thrown in the garbage and brought to landfills or composted
    • Composted - the remaining plant parts can be composted
Activity 2:
  1. Split the class into groups of 4-5 and have each group pick a food product or crop to research and present on. Encourage students to select a simple food or ingredient that is grown in Minnesota and could be found on the Food for Thought maps. Examples include pork, turkey, beef, milk or any dairy product (butter, cheese, etc.), sugar from sugarbeets, sweet corn, green peas, soy products (oil, tofu, etc.). Foods with many elements (example: pizza, pasta, etc.) will be very challenging. Individual steps within the food system should be designated to each student so that they work as a team and complete the task in a set amount of time. Groups can be shown a few examples of a food system to have a better understanding of the teacher's expectation (example: Each group will trace the food item's path in both a conventional/local food system and a global/industrial food system. Project onto the board (or make copies) of the Industrial and Local Food systems handout from the Nourish Curriculum.
    • A local food system is one in which food is produced in a small area and food may be marketed directly to consumers or institutions. (Local food systems can include production, processing, and retail elements).
    • A regional food system may serve a state or other region. Networks of farmers supply regional retailers and wholesale distributors.
    • A global food system is when the products may come from anywhere in the world. On average, food in the global food system travels over 1000 miles from where it is produced to where it is consumed.
    The simplest example will represent locally-grown produce sold at the farmers' market or roadside stands, and a complex industrial/global system that ends at a fast food restaurant, business or school.
    Example: Broccoli Production-Local Food System traces origin from local family farm to farmers' market where consumer purchases item to take home.
  2. Students will create and share their food system maps, identifying components by name as much as possible, to present to the class as a Google Slides presentation after Activity 4. The slide presentation should include:
    • Each step of the food system connected to their item.
    • Name the step.
    • List several actions that occur during that step.
    • Describe how people participate in that step.
    • One image to accompany the step.
    Questions that may help with the research/creation process:
    • Where does your food come from?
    • How is it made?
    • How does it get to you?
    • Who is involved?
Activity 3:
  1. Tell the groups that each of the food systems that they have researched and described have both benefits and costs (negative impacts) associated with them to the environment, people (farmer, neighbors, consumer) and the economy. Ask each group to identify what parts of the food system steps might have a positive and/or negative impact to the environment, people and the economy. Students can add these impacts to their Google Slides presentation. This is an excellent exercise for students to learn analysis, reasoning and critical thinking skills.
Activity 4:
  1. Refreshing their understanding: Ask students to give examples of producers, processors, distributors, transporters, and retailers they can think of. Discuss differences between local/conventional food systems and industrial/global food systems by writing both on the board and ask students to come up with general characteristics of each. This Teacher Resource from John Hopkins Center for a Livable Future can assist with the class discussion:
  2. Checking for Understanding: Students will then present their findings in an informal manner using the Google slide(s) they created. This final product will give the teacher a sense of the knowledge students gained concerning food systems. It will also likely reveal areas of the food system that the teacher will need to make additional connections to for students to have a complete understanding.

Students may use an item from their lunch or from an evening meal to research where ALL the ingredients came from and how many miles they must travel to reach their home.

Additional Resources that can be accessed at

Written resources:
  • Eat Well Guide:
  • PBJ Image: Food + City Author Robyn Metcalfe (@foodmiracle),
Did you know? (Ag Facts)
  • Corn and soybeans are the state's top producing crops. Nationally, Minnesota ranks third in soybean and fourth in corn production.
  • Minnesota leads the nation in producing sugar beets, turkeys, oats and sweet corn and green peas for processing. The state is second only to California in wild rice production. The state is also a major producer of spring wheat, canola, hogs, dry beans and milk cows.
  • Minnesota is unique in the production of wild rice, with both cultivated paddy wild rice and traditional Native American hand harvested wild rice.
  • Minnesota leads the nation in turkey production. The state is also a major producer of hogs, milk cows and mink pelts.
  • Hogs are Minnesota's top-producing livestock commodity and ranks second in the U.S in hog production.
  • Other livestock raised in Minnesota include bison, elk and ostriches. Minnesota is second nationally for number of bison producers, raising 12,000 head.

This lesson was adapted from lessons developed by John Hopkins and The Food Project.

Minnesota Academic Standards
Social Studies - Geography: Create and use various kinds of maps, including overlaying thematic maps, of places in Minnesota; incorporate the “TODALSS: map basics, as well as points, lines and colored areas to display spatial information Obtain and analyze geographic information from a variety of print and electronic sources to investigate places or answer specific geographic questions; provide rationale for its use. Create and use various kinds of maps, including overlaying thematic maps, of places in the world; incorporate the “TODALSS” map basics, as well as points, lines and colored areas to display spatial information. Use appropriate geographic tools to analyze and explain the distribution of physical and human characteristics of places.

Common Core Connections
Grades 6-8 Literacy in History/Social Studies:

Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.

Identify key steps in a text's description of a process related to history/social studies (e.g., how a bill becomes law, how interest rates are raised or lowered).

Recall information from experiences or gather information from print and digital sources; take brief notes on sources and sort evidence into provided categories.