Students Investigate Reducing Food’s Carbon Footprint
Have you ever noticed the zip codes listed on food packages? The listed zip codes are often for the headquarters of a food company that sells the food rather than for locations where the food was grown, produced, or processed. As a result, it becomes quite difficult to determine how many kilometers food has traveled. The amount of fossil fuel that is used to transport food contributes to the amount of carbon dioxide gas in the atmosphere. That carbon dioxide production is often referred to as a “carbon footprint”.
The term “footprint” is appropriate because it represents an impact that people have on their physical and biological environment. If we were to carelessly walk through a garden, we could see footprints that reveal any damage that we may have done to the environment. A carbon footprint is much more subtle. Any fuel burned in furnaces, power plants, or vehicles can impact our physical and biological environment because one of the products of fuels combustion is carbon dioxide. Studies of Earth’s past climate changes have revealed that very small percentage changes in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has a profound effect on Earth’s average temperature.
The challenge of calculating the carbon footprint left as food is transported to Amherst was presented to 8th grade science students at the Amherst Regional Middle School during the 2007-2008 school year. Meeting that challenge required putting to good use the research skills that students had been developing as they studied a wide range of topics in their science classes. For this particular initiative, the students focused on food items that came to their school’s lunch program. Groups of three students chose a food item, measured the miles it traveled from where it was produced to the school, and calculated the carbon emissions based on this distance and mode of transportation. Their task was to then identify an alternative food item or transportation strategy that would reduce the impact.
At the end of the last school year, students at the middle school had an opportunity to share the results of their research efforts. One group discovered that transporting a shipment of burger muffins from an Amherst bakery rather than Chelsea, Massachusetts would reduce a carbon footprint from 4.29 kilograms to less than 0.003 kilograms. Another team realized the inefficiency of chickens raised in the Carolinas being shipped to Texas for processing into chicken patties and then transported to Amherst for consumption.
Those two examples reveal some very important aspects of the student research activities. They had to develop an understanding of the complexities of the food transportation system in the United States. They studied the relationships among modes of transportation, shipping distances, and the amount of carbon dioxide gas that was emitted as food was transported. They learned that there are environmental impacts as we make decisions about the food that we eat. They learned how to communicate research outcomes to their fellow students and to local officials, college faculty, parents, and community members who came to the middle school on May 28, 2008 as guests to observe student presentations. Rich Ferro, Catherine Keppler, Jennifer Welborn and their 2007-2008 8th grade students deserve much credit for taking on this integrated project work.
Middle school science teachers were supported in this effort by the Hampshire College Collaboration for Excellence in Science Education (CESE) and the Town of Amherst Energy Task Force. The college provided professional development, guided planning time, materials, and funding. The Energy Task Force provided guest visitors to the classroom, expertise on climate protection, and a real-life context for learning. Hampshire College is funded to coordinate such outreach projects by the U.S. Department of Energy.
Why is this being shared with you now? From November 17th through November 28th a sample of displays that document the student’s work will be available for viewing at Amherst Books located on Main Street, Food for Thought Books and Valley Books located on North Pleasant Street in downtown Amherst . Please visit these locations and take a look at the hard work ARMS students and teachers completed.
The Amherst Energy Task Force