Story of the Week 12/30/2015
It's Not What You Think It Is!
By Ryann Collins, Nutrition and Agriculture Educator at Green Mountain Farm-to-School
5th- and 6th-graders at a school in the Northeast Kingdom are learning the Lexicon of Sustainability as they consider different aspects of their local food system. In a lesson just before Christmas, they learned to differentiate between therapeutic and subtherapeutic antibiotics and compared different methods for raising chickens, engaging in discussions on human health, ecological sustainability, animal welfare, and transparency in food marketing. Before the lesson, I asked them what they knew about livestock, antibiotics, and cage-free vs. free-range production systems for chickens. They responded with statements like, “Cage free is when you don’t ever have your animals locked up in a cage or in a fence,” or “Free range is when something is not in a cage and can go anywhere.” One student, whose family raises cows, shared that when they treat a sick cow with antibiotics, they do not use the milk from that cow until the antibiotics are out of her system.
After watching a Lexicon of Sustainability video entitled Antibiotic Free, the students had a better understanding of the role of antibiotics in the food system: “I learned that people feed their animals antibiotics not always just when they’re sick, but to increase the animals’ fat.” They learned that therapeutic antibiotics are used by humans and animals to fight disease, but that sub-therapeutic antibiotics speed growth and allow animals to live in close quarters with less risk of disease spreading among them. This is dangerous for people and for the environment: it leads to the evolution of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria that can harm humans, and antibiotics from the animals’ manure can disrupt ecological systems.
If the students were indignant after learning about antibiotics, they were far more so upon learning the truth about terms used to market eggs. At the outset, most had a positive view of “cage-free” and “free-range” production systems. Another Lexicon of Sustainability video, The Story of an Egg, burst their bubble. They discovered that cage-free chickens are still crammed together in tight spaces, though it is true that they are not in cages, and that “free range” could describe a warehouse packed with 5,000 chickens attached to a tiny, concrete yard. We worked together to create visual representations of conventional, cage-free, and pastured chicken operations, calculating the number of birds that each would place in a 10’x10’ space.
At the end of the activity, the students had a different understanding of the seemingly simple vocabulary we started with. Students wrote, “What I learned is that cage free is not that free if you have 10x10 feet of room and 83 chickens in it,” and “Free range is not what you think it is!!!” We brought the discussion back to the Northeast Kingdom community as students considered the importance of transparency in the food system. They reflected that while labels in a grocery store can be misleading, when you purchase eggs from your neighbor, it is easier to find out what sort of operation you are supporting.
Photo Credits: Ryann Collins