Food for Thought! Putting Environmental Education Theory into Practice

by Heather Montgomery

Giving Kids a Natural World of Good — Sixth in a Series of Six Articles

A child sits on the edge of her bench with rapt attention, waiting for the announcement. Looking around, she realizes the chatter has subsided. One hundred and forty other warm bodies are perched on the edge of their benches too, waiting.

"FOOD WASTE UPDATE!!!" an energetic young woman bellows out over the crowd. The dining hall erupts into a raucous din. The children pound out a drum roll on the wooden tables. Their eyes dance with excitement. With a huge grin, the instructor throws her hands in the air and every child follows suit. An expectant pause follows.

"THREE pounds!" the woman announces, and the children burst into cheers and high fives. At every meal, she had weighed the food that was left over on the campers' plates. She graphed the amount on a chart, and the weight had decreased at every meal. "What a great job you all have done! Now, remind me again why we are making such a big deal about all of this?"

A boy waves his hand in the air, "Food comes from the earth and that it takes things like gas, water, and electricity to get it to our plate."

Another boy interrupts, "Yeah, and it takes land to grow the food — land that could be homes for animals if we didn't use it for crops. And they need their homes!"

A girl chimes in, "If we waste less food, we can save those things, and do the earth a favor."

The woman looks impressed, "So that's what this conservation is all about? Your choices?"

"Yeah," the boy answered. "Our choices matter and THAT ROCKS!"

The vision for the Camp McDowell Environmental Center (CMEC) is to connect people to the environment and their community by instilling the ideals of conservation and respect. At CMEC, class topics include water ecology, geology, group problem solving, forest ecology, etc. Each class is educational, fun — and makes an impact on the camper's life. Interestingly, parents tell us that one of the most influential components of the program happens in the dining hall, through a program called Food for Thought (FFT).

Although the Food For Thought program includes lots of hype, grown-ups in crazy costumes, and full-scale cheering, there is a lot more to this experience than a carnival atmosphere or a camp competition. FFT is an intentionally planned educational experience. It results in each camper developing a greater sense of responsibility for the natural world.

The Theory Behind the Practice

So, you ask, how do you go from 120 fifth grade campers who don't eat their pizza crust to 120 thoughtful citizens? At CMEC, we use a framework of environmental education to guide our activity selection

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According to the National Project for Excellence in Environmental Education, "Environmental education is a process that aims to develop an environmentally literate citizenry that . . . has the skills, knowledge, and inclinations to make well-informed choice[s] (NAAEE 2005)." At CMEC, we see it as building a sense of responsibility for the environment. Once you feel responsible for the environment, you have the inclination to make well-informed choices and will then take appropriate actions. To build this sense of responsibility, we use these four steps.

The Steps
The first step, appreciation, involves attitudes, emotions, and awareness toward a resource. To help create this appreciation, educators can use a number of different tools, such as, visiting a special place, sharing their own attitudes about the resource, and sensory awareness activities. At CMEC, we might hike through a beautiful forest, canoe up a canyon, or wade in a pristine stream. Each of these activities encourages an awareness of the resource and provides numerous "teachable-moment" opportunities to increase appreciation.

The second step, knowledge, focuses on facts. The learner gains knowledge by accumulating factual information about the topic. Most people are familiar with this type of learning because it is commonly used in public schools. We often learn facts through research, lectures, or reading. At camp, we accomplish factual knowledge through hands-on exploration, direct observation, and discovery.

The third step, understanding, in-volves concepts. Comprehension of concepts can be difficult. It often involves making connections between the facts that have been previously learned. Educators find that models, experiments, diagrams (like Diagram 1), and visual aids can help the learner "get it." In the outdoor setting, we conduct experiments with real materials, handle the actual objects, and watch natural processes occur.

The fourth step, responsibility, is demonstrated through action. The "sense" of responsibility is internal, but it guides choices and actions. To help children develop this sense, we need to guide them in the process of clarifying their own values. The adults at CMEC act as role models, facilitate debates, lead service projects, and provide opportunities for children to act.

Although each of these steps is not required to develop a sense of responsibility for the environment, these steps guide the process well. It is a natural process with each step leading the learner on to the next step.

Putting the Theory into Practice

At CMEC, we use this framework to structure all of our programs. With the Food for Thought program, we focus on food as the resource. We have developed specific activities to lead the campers through each step of their development.

Appreciation
The week begins with the staff displaying their excitement about this idea of food waste. They show the campers just how much was wasted at a meal, they dress up in funny costumes, they pop up in the middle of announcements to present amazing facts, etc. Students are intrigued, their curiosity engaged, and the first step, that of appreciation, has begun.

Knowledge
Next, we feed them facts about food at every meal (see the side bar on page 48). After eating hamburgers for dinner, campers put on a skit about Bessie, the cow. The skit depicts the steps it took to get their hamburger to their plate (growing, feeding, processing, transporting, preparing, and cooking the meat). At breakfast, with an ingredient list in hand, a staff member traces each ingredient's journey to camp. They mark the journey on a map of the world, showing just how far the food has traveled to be a part of our breakfast. At lunch, we sing silly songs like "Dirt Made My Lunch" (Banana Slug String Band 1997). From the song, the students learn about the natural resources (soil, water, sunlight, etc.) that were required to make their food. Through these activities, the campers accumulate knowledge.

Understanding
To help the students grasp the more difficult concepts, staff use models, diagrams, and examples. Students study species cards that explain how some plant and animal species are in decline because of loss of habitat — habitat that was converted to cropland. They dance to a camp song. One person starts singing and dancing. On the second verse, the singer invites friends to join the song and dance. With each new verse, all of the singers invite others to join in, until soon, the entire camp is up and dancing. This provides a visible lesson that each person's actions can make a difference.

Responsibility
As the campers understand the connections, they begin to take action. Their action is in the form of a personal choice — how much food do I need to put on my plate? Each camper decides for him/herself. The staff model responsible and sanitary choices.

If you are not sure that you will like the green beans, take a small amount at first. When you want more lemonade, pour half a glass at a time. Pretty soon, the campers are coming up with their own solutions — such as cleanly cutting off their pizza crusts and offering them to a friend who likes to eat them like bread sticks. After each meal, they anxiously wait for the announcement of the food waste weight, eager to see evidence of the informed choices they have made. The campers celebrate as they see the charted weight drop as everyone works toward a common goal.

These campers are thinking before they grab for the food platter, and they are making tangible contributions towards conservation. Most importantly, they are learning that their actions make a difference. What better life lesson could we hope for at camp?

Using This Approach at Your Camp

This approach works well for the Camp McDowell Environmental Center whose primary goal is education. But our approach works just as well with more recreational summer camp programs. Think of the added value to your program — fun and dynamic activities that dramatically impact children's lives. Additionally, your kitchen staff will thank you, and your budget will reflect the savings!

Other Ideas

Additionally, this educational approach can be utilized with any resource. Let's look at an example. Think of a natural resource that you would like your campers to protect. It may be a special waterfall, a particular animal species, or a unique grove of trees. Provide activities that address each of the four steps in the framework.

Appreciation What could you do to help them appreciate the resource? You can let them play there and learn to enjoy it. You can tell stories about it, sing songs about it and get them out there touching and feeling it. Naturally, they will develop an emotional attachment to it, a sense of awe, and a feeling of wonder.

Knowledge This appreciation will lead them to seek knowledge about the resource. They will want to find out where the water comes from, how that animal survives in the wild or what lives in that grove of trees. Allow them to explore these topics; provide the resource books, time and tools to investigate, or an adult who can answer their questions.

Understanding As they gain knowledge, you will want to guide the campers into a deeper understanding of the resource. Discuss with them the role the resource plays in the larger ecosystem. Help them comprehend how the water from that waterfall came from the grove of trees above; how the animal depends on that stream for its water; how trees' roots hold the soil; and, how the soil filters the water that enters the stream. Help them make the connections.

Responsibility Now that they have appreciation, knowledge, and an understanding about the resource, when you provide them with an imaginary scenario, they can grasp that a pollutant added to the system impacts the waterfall, the animal, and the grove of trees. Now, they don't want that to happen. They care and feel a responsibility for those resources. They will show that through their own actions. They pick up the litter they find in the stream, they don't tear off the branches of the tree, and they are careful not to disturb the animal's den. They are proud of their actions and know that they are making a difference! And you, too, can be proud of the difference you have made in their lives.

Tips for FFT Program

  • Start out small. Begin by just talking with your staff and campers about these ideas.
  • If you serve cafeteria style, work with your kitchen staff to allow the campers to request small, medium, or large portions.
  • Beware of the competition factor! If you weigh the waste, campers will treat this as a competition between tables, sessions, etc. Competitions can lead to unsanitary situations (one camper eating another camper’s left-overs) and unhealthy situations (a camper being forced to eat more than they should). To counter this, regularly remind campers that the personal choices you make at the beginning of the meal are what determine how much you waste.
  • Stress to the campers that the "why" of this program is much more important than the "how much."
A Few Food Facts
Daily, Americans eat seventy-five acres of pizzas. An acre is about as big as a football field (ADAI 1998).
To produce the food and clothing each American uses in a year, it requires approximately four acres (ADAI 1998).
In one day, Americans typically consume 815 million calories. That’s 200 million more than needed (ADAI 1998).
To reach our plate our food travels an average of twelve hundred miles. That’s as far as from Birmingham, Alabama, to New York City (Earthworks Group 1989).
On average, to produce one pound of ground beef, it takes sixteen pounds of grain and soy beans, twenty-five hundred gallons of water, and the energy equivalent to one half a gallon of gasoline (Earthwork Group 1989).
Since 1947, Camp McDowell has been the camp and conference center for the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama. The camp is located adjacent to the Bankhead National Forest in northwestern Alabama. The Camp McDowell Environmental Center is a residential, nonprofit educational program that serves school groups, grades one through ten. The Center serves thousands of students every year from a four-state area.

 

References
Banana Slug String Band. (1997). Dirt Made My Lunch. Songs from the Earth.
North American Association for Environmental Education. The National Project for Excellence in Environmental Education. Available at: www.naaee.org/npeee/. Accessed 2/18/2005.
Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries (ADAI). (1998) Alabama Ag in the Classroom. Alabama Agriculture Classnotes.
Earthworks Group (1989). 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save The Earth. Earthworks Press p. 90.

Heather Montgomery, M.S., is the education coordinator for the Camp McDowell Environmental Center. She is also the owner/director of DragonFly Environmental Education Programs, a consulting firm that specializes in curriculum development, staff training, and consulting services. Montgomery is a former camper, counselor, and program coordinator — and has directed two camps and one environmental education center. Contact her at heather@dragonflyeeprograms.com.

Originally published in the 2005 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.

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