By Jeannie Russell
Teaching about climate change, and its current and projected impacts on our communities, is a moral obligation we have to our youth, who will have to bear the heaviest burdens of response in the years ahead. We need to offer our students a clear and accurate scientific understanding of how climate and weather systems work, how global fossil-fuel-based energy and extractive industries have caused rapid and destabilizing global warming, and the kinds of impacts in different regions that we can reasonably expect.
As humane educators, we also know that we need to always connect every topic we teach to ways it affects our students’ personal actions, how it reflects our kinship/affiliation with other living beings, and how it defines our collective ethical commitments as a society and inspires their realization in practice. In other words, as humane educators, we need to bring this complex and often frightening topic home — centering it for our students in ways that both empower collective action and shift our relationship to the natural world and all of its inhabitants away from one of distancing and exploitation, and towards one in which we are all deeply intertwined in each other’s futures.
The most direct connection between climate issues and our actual homes is food: No matter where we live, or how climate chaos may be affecting us immediately, we all eat, and most of us are pretty passionate about our food preferences! Teaching about climate issues connected to food, farms, and global food production systems offers us countless ways of directly engaging our students, and highlights one of the most powerful contributors to both climate and overall environmental destabilization. In this blog post, I will share some links to materials about current research on the many impacts of industrialized agriculture and food production on our climate and our global habitats that educators might find helpful in developing lessons — and some ideas for how to make direct connections to our students’ lives in teaching about food and climate that may help a humane educator bring these issues home.
Introducing our students to whole, fresh foods
Schools across the nation are in the forefront of tackling the health crises connected to the proliferation of cheap processed foods, especially in low-income communities and communities of color. The best way to teach about the difference between whole and processed foods is to create opportunities to share the real deal through in-class and parent engagement activities (e.g., CookShop programs), school-wide events (e.g., Spoons Across America), and community-based actions (e.g., Don’t Stress/Eat Fresh). While these programs are local to the New York area, we can all use the ideas they promote to bring appreciation of fresh whole foods into our students’ lives.
Teaching about regional and seasonal foods
Once students have the “taste” for real, whole, and fresh foods, they can be introduced to the benefits of eating regional and seasonal foods. Our global food production and distribution systems are major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and rely largely upon profit-driven cash crops that often impoverish small subsistence farmers and degrade local habitats. Connecting our youth more closely to the realities of the land — the limits and the possibilities for how we can sustainably use the natural habitat we are a part of — is a critical feature of climate change education. A great tool for learning about seasonal foods in different U.S. regions is the Seasonal Food Guide app. Students can look up when different produce will be in season in their region, and it’s a fun activity to make seasonal recipes for dishes based on what is locally fresh and available.
Creating community and school gardens
What better way to introduce students to fresh and local foods than the most engaging and beneficial component of climate education around food and farms: community and school gardens! A school garden, no matter how small, should be an essential part of all students’ lives (see our blog about school gardens for more discussion of their benefits).
School and community gardens are places where education and activism around climate change and habitat degradation blend into an engaging and inspiring mix: teaching about and actively supporting sustainable small-scale farming methods, bringing communities together to tackle issues of food insecurity and food deserts, while making neighborhood habitats more diverse and resilient. There are so many great programs and resources to help schools get started or expand gardening programs. One is LifeLab, a site with a huge number of resources for garden-based education. Grow to Learn also offers a wealth of hands-on resources and a step-by-step guide to starting a school garden.
Supporting organic farm and gardening practices
Chemical agriculture — relying on pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers to increase crop yields — is key to the business of large-scale industrial farming. These chemicals have a devastating effect on the microbiomes that make our soils fertile and lock huge quantities of carbon out of our atmosphere, as well as on the local wildlife, the essential pollinating insects and animals we depend upon for flowering plants and fruits, and our own health. Organic produce can still be expensive as compared to the highly subsidized and processed foods that global food corporations market to us, but building awareness and support for organic farming methods by taking trips to local farmers’ markets, and of course by growing our own fresh produce in school and community gardens, is an important contribution to the necessary transition away from chemical agriculture. There’s an app called American Farmers’ Markets that locates farmers’ markets around the country and is just one of many resources for finding and supporting local, small-scale, and organic farmers.
Exploring plant-based food choices
Humane educators are well aware of the massive suffering that large-scale animal agriculture (factory farming) involves, and most already also know that animal agriculture is one of the greatest global contributors to climate change through its reliance on fossil-fuel-based infrastructure, the huge warming impact of methane emissions from beef and dairy cows, and the expansion of rainforest deforestation to plant animal feed and graze cattle. Inspiring a love of fresh fruits and produce, and introducing students to the rewards of growing fresh foods and the many critical ways that sustainable and restorative gardening and farming practices can mitigate climate impacts and reverse warming trends, are also ways of helping youth explore the many benefits of plant-based food choices without challenging personal or cultural preferences. Initiatives like Meatless Monday are great ways to start teaching about the health, environmental, and animal welfare benefits of a plant-based diet.
As we move into a period of unpredictable changes for our planet’s natural systems, the most important thing we can offer our youth as teachers is a sense of empowerment through positive actions they can take in their own lives, and connection to collective movements that embrace a vision of the world as an interconnected whole, where an appreciation of the inherent value of all living beings informs the choices they will make. Sharing of food is one of our most powerful cultural bonds; humane educators can play an important role in shaping those bonds towards a more resilient and sustainable home for all.
Some Additional Teaching Resources on Climate and Agriculture
- Heart Webinar: Food Justice
- Food Myth-Busters: Industrial Agriculture
- Union of Concerned Scientists: Hidden Costs of Industrial Agriculture
- Yale Environment: Why Insect Numbers Are Declining
- Yale Environment: Soil as Carbon Storehouse
- Fresh: Movie trailer on Industrial Agriculture and Alternatives
- Cowspiracy: Impacts of Animal Agriculture
- Solutions: Agroecology
- John Hopkins University: FoodSpan Curriculum
- Farm Sanctuary: Sustainable Future Curriculum