Welcome to the sixth post in our ‘Reading for the environment’ series. Throughout the year we'll be posting monthly articles complete with lesson plans and reading tips to help you focus on different aspects of the environment and raise environmental awareness in your English classes. Our Readers Blog primarily promotes the importance of reading in language education, but we also embrace the idea of caring for our environment. We also think that literacy and language development and environmental studies mutually support each other. To put it simply: the better your students’ literacy and language skills become, the more they will be able to learn about the environment and understand the urgent need to live in a sustainable fashion.
This month we focus on FOOD, following the themes of WINTER, SEEDS, RAIN, RIVERS and POLLUTION. Food is a central topic in our lives, and our relationship with food has a huge impact on the environment. In the following lesson we will see how our food choices affect our health and well-being, and have serious repercussions on the environment. We also look at some of the major issues regarding food in both global and local contexts. All of this through science-based project ideas and reading recommendations.
Basic food language
The first thing to do is provide your students with a basic set of words which will make them think about food in a different way. Making responsible food choices begins with knowing what to look for, and having the words to express what we want is a good start!
Which of these expressions should go on a healthy eating list? Some of these words are for B1+ levels, but your students might be familiar with them in their first language.
- whole food - natural food - unprocessed food - unrefined foods
- high-fibre content - low glycemic index
- clean eating - slow food - balanced diet
- packaged food - processed food - refined food
- junk food - precooked food/ready meals
- saturated fats - high in fats
- local produce - farmers’ market - organic food
- plant-based foods - raw food
- healthy fats - unsaturated fats
- free range (e.g., free range eggs, free range chicken)
Activities to learn about food and the environment
1 The origin of your favourite foods
Ask your students for their favourite meal. Then ask them to list the main ingredients. Ask them to think about where each ingredient comes from. Students can check labels in the kitchen and fridge and ask their parents, or use the internet for help.
For example, in Europe, tomatoes may be grown in your own country, or another country such as Spain, the Netherlands or Italy. If someone likes kiwis, they might know that they are usually imported from Italy, Israel or New Zealand. Why is it a good idea to buy foods which are grown locally?
2 How far does your food come from? Talk about the carbon footprint of your food
This activity is closely connected to the previous one. Once the students have identified where their favourite foods come from, they can add information about the distance between the location and their hometown.
Introduce the concept of carbon footprint and ask your student if they have heard about it.
In simple terms, a carbon footprint is the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere as a result of our activities. For example, buying a box of chocolates has a certain carbon footprint (the production of the raw materials/ingredients, processing, storage, transportation and waste) and travelling 100 kms by car also has a certain carbon footprint which will obviously depend on the type of car, fuel and number of people in the car.
The farther your favourite foods come from, the higher their carbon footprint can be. But this isn’t the only factor which impacts the carbon footprint of your food.
Ask students if they can guess which food types have the highest carbon footprint. You can read more about it in this article.
Then, ask them to check the carbon footprint of their favourite foods, being careful not to make them feel bad about the foods they like and eat. Activities like this will help raise awareness and ensure that your students make informed and responsible choices. For example, they can buy local food and pay attention to how they store and consume it, being careful not to waste too much of it.
3 Celebrate local food
Every country and every region has typical dishes which are usually based on local ingredients. Brainstorm famous dishes or food festivals in your area. What foods would tourists like to try?
This activity can also inspire you to create a list of local foods which not only support local farmers, but also travel less and can be enjoyed fresh (and probably without too many preservatives).
Ask students to think about other countries with famous food festivals.
What produce and food do you associate with England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Canada, the United States (different in all the states really!), Australia and New Zealand?
Here are some tips to get started:
- Manuka honey, seafood, lamb, kiwis and apples: New Zealand
- Different types of berries, maple syrup, wild salmon: Canada
4 A trip to the local market
Whether you live in a small town or a big city, you will have a local market somewhere in the neighbourhood. Where are these local markets or farmers’ markets? When are they open? Why are they a good idea to visit? Talk about the importance of seasonal, local, fresh produce. You can also talk about how shopping at the farmers’ market will support local businesses.
Students can create a map of the local markets in your area. Ask them to create a photo diary or a short video of their visit to the market. They can find their favourite stands and show their favourite produce. Higher levels can interview the growers and make a programme for an English-language television or radio station.
5 Eat seasonal food
Buying local, fresh food is just one aspect of being a responsible eater. Making seasonal choices is another great way of supporting local farmers and looking after our health and getting back in tune with the natural cycle.
Ask students to think about what foods are in season now in your area. For example, if you live in Austria, the asparagus season is over by the end of June. What foods should they be eating?
Now they can create a more complete seasonal calendar. Ask them to get suggestions from their parents or other older family members. If possible, you can also involve the science teacher (this could become a CLIL project) or simply check the information on the internet. Here is a nice example of a seasonal calendar: https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/seasonal-calendar.
6 Be your own chef
Fast food restaurants offer an easy answer to our hunger: they are cheap, quick, there are no suprises, and they can be found everywhere. Of course, we all go to these places from time to time, but it’s important to keep a balanced diet. This way we will know exactly what goes on our plates and ultimately into our bodies.
- What’s your healthiest favourite dish? Write down the recipe.
- Write down your favourite national recipe.
- Ask someone in your family to talk about an old traditional recipe. What memories do they have around it (cooking with a parent or grandparent, the period or occasion when it was prepared).
- Write down a recipe with only 3-5 ingredients.
If you are interested in more food-related projects, check out these two blog posts:
1 It’s more than fuel
It’s easy to look at food as fuel - and in a way it is fuel as we get our energy from it. But just like cars, it’s a good idea to pay attention to what you pour inside your body.
Ask your students that apart from thinking of food as fuel, what else can it mean? Food can mean so much more.
- It’s a way of spending time with your family. Cooking and eating together are fun activities.
- It’s an artistic experience: just think about the colourful fruit, vegetables and ingredients that you work with when preparing a meal.
- It’s a cultural experience: by learning about local dishes, you learn a little (or sometimes a lot) about history and culture.
- It’s a scientific experience. Baking, for example, is like chemistry. By mixing certain ingredients, something magical happens in the oven. Just think about a loaf of freshly baked bread, a fluffy cake or a colourful macaroon. You need science to make such magic.
Discuss the four points above.
- Ask students for a story about a memorable event related to cooking and eating.
- Students can think about the most artistic meal they can imagine: what colours and textures would they add?
- Students can find out about the history of a local dish.
- Students can describe a complicated food creation and explain it from the perspective of science. For example: what makes the pizza/bread rise in the oven?
- Ask your students to describe a dish, in order to persuade other people to eat it.
2 Talk about Fairtrade
Your students are probably familiar with the Fairtrade logo but do they know exactly what it means when they see it on food products? Ask your students to do some research and explain what it means. Ask them to find out about Fairtrade agreements and what they mean for everyone in the process of making a food product (from the grower to the buyer).
You can read a lot more about Fairtrade in World Around by Maria Cleary. Check out this page from the unit on England.
Food in Fiction
Food is an essential part of literature, too. We are invited to fictive dinners, make literary meals and discover how different people in different ages prepared and consumed food. Check out this collection of memorable meals in literature, published in the Guardian.
Here are some more resources to read about food and famous recipes from our favourite novels.
1 Recipes from our readers
Check out this collection of recipes inspired by our readers.
- Breakfast muffins from Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
- Jam tarts from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
- Ginger cake from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving
- Raspberry cordial from Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
Food and food events are central to many famous novels. Just think about the dinner parties and picnics in Jane Austen’s novels, the picnic in To the Lighthouse or the Madhatter's tea party in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
You can ask your students if they remember a description of food from a story they have read. What was it? Can they describe it? Have they tasted it?
If you’d like more on this topic, check out these articles:
2 Food writers
A good way to learn English in action is to read recipes in English. Recipes provide good examples of instructional language and can act as good models for writing instructional text. Before you encourage students to try these recipes, it’s a good idea to talk about:
- weights and measurements which can be different in the US, the UK and the rest of the world
- typical products which might be hard to find in your own country
Here are some food writers whose writing we enjoy:
- Julia Child
- Nigella Lawson
- Nigel Slater
- Michael Pollan
- Felicity Cloake
- Rachel Roddy
3 Food and poetry
You can also read poetry together in class. Our ultimate tip on reading poetry is to read it slowly (as if you were savouring the taste of what is being described) and read it out loud (as sharing makes everything taste better)!
- After Apple Picking by Robert Frost
- The Emperor of Ice-cream by Wallace Stevens
- We Are Britain by Benjamin Zepheniah
- This Is Just To Say by William Carlos Williams
Read We Are Britain in World Around by Maria Cleary. What is food a metaphor for in this poem?