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Food Synthesis

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This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.


Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Thus goes Michael Pollan's mantra in the book he dubs his "eater's manifesto," In Defense of Food, the follow-up to The Omnivore's Dilemma. As Pollan points out, it's odd that eating -- something we do every day -- should need defense, but since, as he then goes on to argue, what we so often do is not eat, but consume, it's a defense that is sorely needed these days.

Hence the sudden proliferation of books and films about the food industry. The forerunners, Fast Food Nation and Super-Size Me, are already well-known to many AP® Language teachers who have used them as examples of extended argument in book and documentary form.

Another important film, Food, Inc., is set to be the next big exposé about industrial food and the harm it does to our bodies, our ethics, our environment, and our economy. Based on much of the field research that went into Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore's Dilemma, it's an excellent opportunity to engage our students in a significant, relevant, and far-reaching series of arguments. There's enough here to fuel a whole year of work around analysis and creation of argument, and research and synthesis of points of view.

For the past couple of years, I have had my students keep databanks -- journals in which they keep clippings from periodicals on current events topics that have interested them. About halfway through the year, I ask them to narrow to one topic and eventually to use the material in their databanks for a synthesis-style writing task.

This year, I adapted the assignment to include a full-length nonfiction book read over the summer. I encouraged students to choose something that had cross-over potential into other areas of study, like economics, science, philosophy, or history. An assignment like this one lends itself well to a study of the impact of our food industry in all these areas.

It was easy enough for me to think of books that argue strongly for a food revolution. Off the top of my head:

Enter any of these titles into, and the startling array of related titles tells you that the movement against industrial food is a going -- and growing -- concern. So it's harder to find good counterarguments, ones that will make for a legitimate synthesis "conversation" from which students can draw their own conclusions.

The industry itself is a good place to start. Companies who create exactly the "value-added" food that Pollan decries have press releases on their Web sites to describe the science behind their products. Take, for example, Danone (aka Dannon) yogurt's Activia line. Its Web site includes links to scientific studies of the product and its health claims. (As an added bonus, any Web site provides opportunities for visual analysis.)

Noncommercial entities, like UC Berkeley's, publish articles like this one, which includes an assessment of locavorism from a pragmatic perspective. It may also be worthwhile doing some searches for articles by food scientists discussing the importance of genetically-modified foods (GMOs) for solving hunger issues by, for example, creating drought-resistant crops. And the perspectives of farmers economically affected by food trends and the influences of their proponents.

If you are looking for more audiovisual resources, try the TED talks, always a good source for interesting arguments:

A short BBC documentary, called A Farm for the Future, shows us what kinds of alternatives there are to large-scale monoculture farming.

Oh, I could go on for ages! That's the great thing about a topic that is so current and far-reaching in its implications. As I hinted earlier, you can touch on such a wide variety of topics with a subject as all-encompassing and significant as "food"; for example, a section in Food, Inc. highlights the class divide that forces poor people to make bad food choices and another segment opens our eyes to the mistreatment of illegal immigrants working for the meat packing industry -- why not tie this into the working conditions examined in Nickel and Dimed, or to the NYT series I mentioned in an earlier post on the lives of immigrants in today's America?

Turn to The Language of Composition, and you'll find a number of related items, too: excerpts from Emerson, Thoreau, Rachel Carson, Wendell Berry, and more; an article about the effects of pesticides on the frog population; a cartoon called "Food Fight" about GMOs, and various related materials in the "Nature" chapter.

What other sources would you recommend on any side of this multi-faceted issue?

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