Sept. 26 2013 08:56 AM

Study shows that children are detached from the agri-food production cycle.

classroom learning about foodFewer Americans understand where food originates, how it's produced or how purchasing decisions affect the entire agri-food system. A study published by the American Society of Agronomy studied children's understanding of food production. It included 45 minute interviews with 18 children ages, 9 to 11, attending public schools in an urban area in southern California.

When asked about their past exposure to agriculture, 8 had been on a field trip, 7 mentioned a garden, 3 claimed grandpa's farm, 1 had a mobile classroom visit and 1 had a family member with a "dirt farm with a horse." Three had no plant or animal exposure.

Eighty-nine percent did not have sound vocabulary to discuss the origins of food and plants. They were asked why farmers chose to raise certain animals or crops. Words typically used for animals were applied to crops. They did not mention the idea that certain foods are grown in the parts of the country that are best suited for them.

The children had no idea that food and crops could come from different parts of the world either. One student remarked that farmers chose what to grow based on making money. She followed up with "sheep have fur for factories to make pillows and stuff." When was the last time you saw a wool pillow?

Talking about cows, one stated that there are different colored cows. "I think they get chocolate milk from the ones that have brown spots." She was one of the few that had seen a cow and 78 percent of their answers were equivalent to not knowing anything about cows.

Students faired better with plants. They knew they needed water, soil, light, temperature, air, protection and nutrients to grow. However, when asked about growing food in conditions very different from where they live (desert, mountains, beaches), they struggled. Just under half had good ideas to make adjustments like watering more or changing the planting time. One very telling statement about the short-sided view of many was seen in her response to making tomatoes grow in the mountains. She said to cut down the trees in the area so the tomatoes wouldn't get cold (more exposure to the sun). She never went down the line of thinking that chopping the trees would have a negative impact on the area's habitat and ecosystem.

For people living in the mountains, how do they get water to their tomatoes? "A really long hose" was the response. Funny yes, but a sad statement on the reality of growing crops in mountain areas. When asked about growing tomatoes in the desert, the child thought they could grow there, but over half really did not know.

An area of familiarity was eating. The conversation centered around food spoilage. A few mentioned good sanitation as a way to prevent spoilage. They even suggested microwaving food to prevent spoiling and to make it safe to eat. The best way to keep food from spoiling…"Eat it!" "Microwave it." Anything else won't work.

After talking with the children, it became apparent that the underlying concepts had never been taught in school or at home. These urban youth saw most of these agri-food system concepts as foreign, even though they all related to a cheeseburger. But how that cheeseburger's components got to their plate remained a mystery.

The study had three recommendations:
  1. Further studies on basic agriculture are needed because limited studies on agri-food systems are available. Studying children's conceptions on animal and plant production is needed to broaden an understanding of technology in the industry.

  2. Lack of knowledge in kids of this age necessitates an ag-literacy program that is developmentally appropriate.

  3. Elementary teachers need training to bridge students' current knowledge about everyday food to the agri-food system. Hands-on projects will increase an understanding of food production.
While this study focused on grammar school children, many adults' knowledge is also limited in the area of food production. While some of their answers may have shocked you, it is reality for many of our consumers. And, eventually, those children grow up and become voting adults who will ultimately have an impact on food production legislation. It is time to start educating children properly to ensure that we still have the opportunity to feed the world.
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The author is the online media manager and is responsible for the website, webinars and social media. A graduate of Modesto Junior College and Fresno State, she was raised on a California dairy and frequently blogs on youth programs and consumer issues.