SOIL, Food Mapping

By Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, April 5, 2010

Grade Level

  • Middle School


  • Green Design

Subject Area

  • Science
  • Social Studies

Lesson Time

2 hours


If asked where our food comes from, many of us would say the supermarket or, perhaps, name a restaurant.  But how did it get to those places and where was it grown? In our busy lives, we often fail to make the connection between the food we eat and the natural systems that comprise this process.  The average American's food travels over 1,500 miles from the farm soils in which it was grown to the table where it is consumed. Over the past 50 years we have changed our farming practices dramatically to accommodate for population growth and the availability of cheap and fresh meat, produce and vegetables around the world.  Massive shifts in agriculture are revealing problems associated with this type of farming.  Things like soil erosion, water quality issues, declines in biodiversity, hormones, chemical fertilizers and toxins in the water just to name a few are threatening the health of communities around the world.
The variety of foods available at our supermarkets comes at a price.  This food is often heavily treated with fertilizers, depletes the soil and must travel great distances, leaving a trail of environmental detriment in its wake. To address these issues, farmers, designers and people of all backgrounds are coming together to think critically about these challenges and design more efficient and localized systems that have less impact on our planet and provide us with healthier food. In this lesson students will explore various farming techniques and make connections between the food they eat and where it’s grown. Students will use design-thinking to analyze the current food system in their community and will be encouraged to find positive solutions to the ecological and social challenges of the modern food system. This exercise will compliment social studies lessons that relate to geography and world history, looking at agricultural development and trade through many examples.

National Standards

Common Core Literacy for Other Subjects Strand Reading for Science and Technical Subjects   Grades 6-8   RST.6-8.4. Determine the meaning of symbols, key terms, and other domain-specific words and phrases as they are used in a specific scientific or technical context relevant to grades 6-8 texts and topics. RST.6-8.7. Integrate quantitative or technical information expressed in words in a text with a version of that information expressed visually (e.g., in a flowchart, diagram, model, graph, or table). Common Core Literacy for Other Subjects Strand Writing for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects Grades 6-8 WHST.6-8.1. Write arguments focused on discipline-specific content. WHST.6-8.7. Conduct short research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question), drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions that allow for multiple avenues of exploration. WHST.6-8.8. Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, using search terms effectively; assess the credibility and accuracy of each source; and quote or paraphrase the data and conclusions of others while avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation. Common Core Mathematics Grades 6-8 Understand ratio concepts and use ratio reasoning to solve problems. Analyze proportional relationships and use them to solve real-world and mathematical problems.
Human Systems
The World in Spatial Terms
Environment and Society
World History
Era 7: An Age of Revolutions, 1750-1914


Students will learn about the social and environmental impacts of where their food is grown and consumed. Students will design a food map to source food from their cafeteria.


National Farm to School Network - Plow to Plate -
Small Planet Institute -
Look at Yves Behar’s Cocoa Grater project that encourages organic cocoa farming in Costa Rica. How does this unique design influence the environmental impact of growing cocoa in Central America?


World maps, rulers, pencils


Locavore - One who tries to eat only locally grown foods.
Biodiversity - The variety of plant and animal life in a particular habitat.
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) - A cooperative system where interested consumers purchase a share (a.k.a. a "membership" or a "subscription") with a local farm. In return members receive seasonal produce each week throughout the farming season.
Industrial farming - A modern farming technique that refers to large-scale industrialized production of livestock, poultry, fish, and food crops.
Polyculture - The planting of two or more crops in the same place.
Agriculture - The production of food through farming, which has gone through many changes in the past century.


Food and Agriculture Systems (10 minutes – Review)
Begin this lesson by discussing food and agriculture systems. You can couple this with a U.S. History lesson set during a colonial or revolutionary time period. Ask students to talk about how food was grown and distributed before cars, trucks or modern transportation infrastructures.
Most of the food in the early 17th and 18th century was grown locally because of a lack of refrigeration and poor road conditions. However, as the industrial revolution kicked into high gear, and farming technologies spread – foodstuffs were grown farther away from the people who would consume and eat them.
Now, most Americans' food travels over 1,500 miles from the farm to the table. Additionally, most of the food products we use everyday are produced on large industrial farms and then distributed by multinational corporations to supermarkets, schools, hospitals and prisons across the country. For instance, the majority of the foods found in your cafeteria, have been pre-cooked and frozen so that these products can be transported long distances without spoiling and are easy and quick to prepare in kitchens that must feed thousands of students like you every day!
Make a timeline with your students looking at the way food was produced and distributed historically in the 13 colonies and the immediate post-Revolutionary War era. What are the major differences we can observe today? Why was food production more local in the 1600 and 1700s?
Your Role in the System (10 minutes – Investigate)
So how does the food distribution system work anyway? How exactly does food get from a farm to your table? Let’s look at the design process of the modern food system:
  1. Growing – This first step happens on a farm, in a garden, or even in the ocean if it is a fish farm. This is the step where your food is grown.
  2. Transporting - This is the point where food is divided up and delivered many places. Whole foods from a farm can be delivered to grocery stores, restaurants, farmers markets, and even factories. How it is transported can also vary greatly – from a person on foot to a refrigerated truck, from a cargo ship, to a jet.
  3. Changing/Processing- Food is changed to make another product. Sometimes it is changed to alter the flavor or to make it last longer, or to make new foods altogether. Processing can include things like canning, freezing, heating, drying, adding preservatives to food or removing fat (low-fat).
  4. Packaging – This is a method of protecting food from spoilage on its way to markets and grocery stores. It divides up goods into equal quantities, and provides a place for advertising. Some materials used for packaging are paper, plastic, cardboard, glass, and aluminum.
  5. Buying – At this point food producers and companies determine what consumers want or need. Sometimes the marketers make you think you need something so you will buy it. They decide how to make people want to buy a kind of food. (Example: the cartoon characters from cereal boxes were created to catch children’s eyes.) A big portion of the money you pay for a product goes to the marketing costs. Over $10 billion a year is spent advertising food and beverage items to children and teens. The second aspect of “buying” is where the consumer gets the product. Food can be sold in a variety of places, from grocery stores or restaurants to farmers markets and CSAs.
  6. Preparing/Cooking – Cooking can happen at home, restaurants, or in lunchrooms like in a school or hospital. You can cook “from scratch” or you can buy a frozen meal and heat it in the microwave. When we eat at a restaurant or lunchroom, someone else does the cooking. Many times, buying “heater meals” means there was more that happened to food in the “processing” step, than when a meal is made to eat immediately.
  7. Consuming/Eating – This is the step where we finally eat the food.
  8. Disposing or Reusing – Finally, food scraps and food packaging left over after a meal can have a couple of potential fates. Recycling: Leftover food can be used to make compost, a rich organic fertilizer to add to a garden or farm. The food ends up where it started. Packaging such as paper, cardboard, aluminum and glass can be recycled. Disposing: Throwing away food scraps and/or packaging. Waste is taken to a landfill, or dump where it is compacted and covered with layers of soil.
After talking about how food gets from the farm to your table, investigate some of the environmental and health problems associated with this kind of food production.
  • Food production and delivery require a great deal of fossil fuels.
  • Soil, water, and air pollution. In the Midwest, the Mississippi River often floods. Runoff from fertilizer makes the water toxic not only near the flood area but for everything downstream from it.
  • Soil erosion and depletion.
  • Elimination of beneficial microorganisms in soil. Loss of wildlife on the farm.
  • Insects and bacteria develop resistance to pesticides, creating “super pests.”
  • Processed foods have less nutrition and more chemicals than whole foods.
  • Loss of plant and animal diversity.
Ask students to research information about their area. Use the EPA’s website ( to gather information about the issues organized in the table below.

Environmental Issue                                    Environmental Impact                         Health Impact

Water Quality

Air Quality

Pesticide/Insecticide/Herbicide Use

Map it Out (20 minutes - Frame/ReFrame)
Introduce the concept of food mapping to your students. As a warm-up activity make the connection between food, students' bodies and the relationships between the environment and our health more central by asking each student to think critically about their connections to food.
Making Connections: Food Systems and Your Body
Start by having each student create a food log of the past week or day. What did you eat for breakfast, how about last night for dinner? Discuss as a class what kinds of foods are being consumed. If patterns begin to emerge, begin to write these on the board.
Now break out the kinds of foods being consumed into categories like meat, produce, vegetables and grains. What is the general breakdown? Does this breakdown represent the USDA’s food pyramid accurately? 
The USDA food pyramid, redesigned in 2009, is an easily understandable tool for directing the food choices we make every day.
Finally, lets begin to trace this food system backwards. Ask students to create a food map that starts with their body and what they ate most recently. Visually map out each kind of food and ask students to think about the places that this food may have been grown. Fruits for example will most likely be grown in a warm climate, grains maybe come from the Midwest and vegetables from various regions around the country and globe.
Encourage students to make connections about what they are eating each day and where it is coming from through this mapping process. Ask each student to explain his or her food map to a partner. Follow up with questions about their personal relationships to food in terms of health and the environment. For instance this can be an opportunity to bring up fast food chains in the area that students may visit, processed foods that are popular, and environmentally related issues that address water quality and land-use issues in the region.
Now engage your students in a larger scale food mapping activity. Divide students into design teams of 4-5 and pass out world maps. Each design team will be given 5 food products with their country origin to map.
Use a ruler and the map's scale found in the legend or key, each team must approximate the number of miles their foods traveled to get to their school.

Yogurt  Ohio

Lettuce  California

Garlic  China

Oranges  Arizona

Bread  Kentucky

Avocado  Egypt

Asparagus  Peru

Peaches  Mexico

Chicken  Louisiana

Hamburger  New Zealand

Crab  Thailand

Watermelon  Texas

Bananas  Ecuador

Cheese  Australia

Pineapple  Hawaii

Cookie  Virginia

Box of Cereal  Tennessee

Onion  Guatemala

Potatoes  Idaho

Ice Cream  Wisconsin

Using the table, assign each student 2-3 foods to map. Handout a world map to each student. Using a ruler, measure the distance between two points: the location of your town/city and the general area of where the food is located. Identify the scale on each map and ask students to approximate the distance traveled using the ratio prompted through the scale.
Once the foods have been mapped, have each team create representative diagrams of this food system. Create a starting point for origin and an end point for consumption. Each team or student should attempt to map out the 8 steps discussed previously.
Technology Extension:
Using the 2010 National Design Triennial’s case study of a program called WorldMapper, ask each student to search the sites database for maps that reference food. Each student can visit and look at examples of maps including:
  • Map Number 41 Fruit Exports
  • Map Number 42 Fruit Imports
  • Map Number 43 Vegetables Exports
  • Map Number 44 Vegetables Imports
  • Map Number 45 Dairy Exports
  • Map Number 46 Dairy Imports
  • Map Number 47 Cereals Exports
  • Map Number 48 Cereals Imports
  • Map Number 49 Meat Exports
  • Map Number 50 Meat Imports
  • Map Number 51 Fish Exports
  • Map Number 52 Fish Imports
  • Map Number 53 Groceries Exports
  • Map Number 54 Groceries Imports
  • Map Number 55 Alcohol And Cigarettes Exports
  • Map Number 56 Alcohol And Cigarettes Imports
  • Map Number 177 Undernourishment in 1990
  • Map Number 178 Undernourishment in 2000
  • Map Number 182 Underweight Children
  • Map Number 363 International Food Aid
  • Map Number 364 International Fast Food
Ask each student to write down their reactions to the map they have chosen. How does it differ from an untouched world map? What regions of the world are bigger or smaller? What does this tell us about the topic being explored?
Mapping Solutions (20 minutes – Generate)
In the next session, talk to students about possible solutions that could decrease the number of food miles traveled and help to alleviate some local and global environmental impacts.
  • Organic local farms – Many organic farms are creating sustainable and local food sources for urban and suburban communities isolated from agricultural lands.
  • Local Purchasing – Many restaurants and cafes choose to purchase only local ingredients in their stores.
  • Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) - A cooperative system where interested consumers purchase a share (a.k.a. a "membership" or a "subscription") with a local farm. In return members receive seasonal produce each week throughout the farming season.
  • Farmers market – Farmers markets are marketplaces for local produce and products. Farmers setup a stand once a week in a downtown location to access diverse populations.
  • School/Home Gardening – one of the simplest ways to make your food more local is to grow it yourself. If you have a backyard or even a windowsill you can begin to grow your own herbs, food crops and more.
One you’ve discussed some solutions, encourage students to design a more local or sustainable food system for the school or local community. Using the same design teams you had for the food mapping activity – challenge each team to come up with a way to reduce the miles their food travels. Teams should list food products they commonly consume and develop ideas for maps that show the reduced amount of distribution or transportation required.
Encourage bioregional thinking – what kinds of food products are local to the region and what seasons correspond to the appropriate food crop.
Math Connection: Calculating your Foodprint
Ask students to answer two questions to the best of their ability to estimate their carbon footprint related to food. To arrive at your food footprint, the quiz sums up arable land, pasture, sea space, and land areas to sequester CO2 from the energy expended to grow, process and transport the items. (Note this is an estimate and not accurate.)
Question 1: How often do you eat animal-based foods (beef, pork, chicken, fish, eggs, dairy products)?
(A) Never (vegan)
(B) Infrequently/strict vegetarian (no meat and eggs/dairy a few times a week)
(C) Occasionally (no meat or occasional meat, but eggs/dairy almost daily)
(D) Often (meat once or twice a week)
(E) Very often (meat daily)
(F) Almost always (meat and eggs/dairy in almost every meal)
Circle the number your answer corresponds to:
Question 2: Locally Grown Food: How much of your food is processed, packaged, and not locally grown (from more than 200 miles away)?
(A) Most of the food I eat is processed, packaged, and from far away.
(B) Three Quarters
(C) Half
(D) One quarter
(E) Very little. Most of the food I eat is unprocessed, unpackaged, and locally grown.
Circle the number your answer corresponds to:
Your Food Footprint: Q1 ______ x Q2 _____ x 5.5 = ______ acres.
(Multiply your answer to Question 1 by your answer to Question 2 by 5.5.)
The average US Ecological Footprint is 24 acres per person. The average food footprint is 6 acres.
Poster Design (10 minutes - Edit and Develop)
After each team has brainstormed, groups should design a poster that explains their newly designed local food system.
Require that each team include:
  1. System Factors – climate, region
  2. Environmental Impacts – how does this new system reduce environmental impacts?
  3. System Elements – what makes your new food system local?
  4. Food Mile Reduction – how many miles are now reduced on average because of the new system?
After developing your new food systems, present ideas to the class. If computer access is available challenge each student to enter their maps using an online resource called SourceMap  (, which provides user-generated maps of where things come from and where they end up.
Finally, discuss how each system thought about local ecology and the role of consumers and farmers. (Share and Evaluate)
If time allows, present to other members of the school and discuss options in creating a farm-to-school program in your school. (Finalize)


Reflection Questions
  • Do you find it surprising that food consumption contributes so much to your carbon footprint?
  • Would you consider becoming vegan or vegetarian to help the environment?  Why or why not?
  • Name one way that you could improve your design.  Why would you change this aspect?

Enrichment Extension Activities

 Differentiation for Elementary School:
  • Take a field trip to a local farm or community garden. Help with feeding the animals or with the farm work or gardening. Students can learn firsthand where their food comes from and the work that is required to grow food.
  • Do a taste test! Compare the flavor and texture of locally grown produce with produce that was shipped to your supermarket from another region or country. Can your students tell the difference?
 Differentiation for High School:
  • Students can research the new Back-to-the-Land movement. They can interview local urban, suburban or rural back-to-landers about their choices and methods of food production. Students can use this research to begin a food production plan for their own backyard or school--whether it is through gardening, beekeeping or raising livestock.

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