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Educator advocates for informing students of how dietary choices influence larger issues

Monday, January 30, 2017

LAWRENCE — The foods we eat each day likely don’t stimulate much consideration outside of whether it tastes good and perhaps how much it cost. And for young students, thoughts about how their dietary choices may play into larger issues such as climate change, deforestation or pollution are probably not common. A University of Kansas professor argues in a new article that schools should present students with information about how dietary choices extend beyond their own table and how individual actions can contribute to larger societal problems, then allowing them to make their own informed decisions.

Suzanne Rice, professor of educational leadership and policy studies at KU, presented “What’s Meat Got to Do With It?” at the Summer Institute at the University of Illinois. The article examines the myriad problems associated with American dietary choices such as pollution, animal suffering, deforestation, pollution, contributions to climate change, dangers to food processing workers and more. She then argues that students should be presented with such information in a nonjudgmental way. For decades, students have learned about nutrition, the food pyramid and perhaps a bit about climate change, but K-12 education rarely touches on the aforementioned topics and related issues to food production.

In the article, Rice argues that most young students are ignorant of the connection between diet and global problems. That’s mainly because they are not presented with information on the topics and it’s not something young people inherently know about; in fact, many adults don’t know about the connections or willfully choose not to consider them.

“We get worried about food safety when there is a catastrophic problem with food-borne illnesses. But the bigger problem is much more insidious, such as the use of antibiotics in animals that leads to drug-resistant bacteria,” Rice said. “You can’t take control of this problem without realizing there is a problem. Students should be presented with the knowledge and allowed to make their own decisions. And by thinking of these problems, students may think of new ways to solve them and new ways to manage our food systems.”

Rice points out she is not arguing that everyone become a vegetarian or that teachers preach to students about the dangers of eating meat. Instead, she shares recommendations with how teachers, parents and school officials — whom she argues are best suited to decide how to address such topics in their schools and communities — can approach the topics without turning off students or making them feel insulted.

“I don’t think we need a radical or major pedagogical change. Of course, nutrition and diet should still be taught, but I think we just need to be more explicit and draw together relations between topics and subjects like nutrition and chemistry,” Rice said.

There is a tendency to overlook students’ attitudes when addressing controversial topics in education, Rice said. Among both students and adults, people can become defensive or dismissive of ideas if they are made to feel they are wrong or inferior for feeling or believing what they do. Therefore, when addressing such sensitive topics about how choosing to eat meat can contribute to water pollution from industrial animal operations, teachers can begin by assuring students they are not bad people or ignorant for making the dietary choices they do. Educators can also increase the chances of their students’ listening by avoiding the tendency to rely strictly on arguments and making points with statistics, numbers and hard data. “Engaging around the edges” of a topic, offering personal reflections, first-hand narratives and alternative approaches such as computer simulations or offering engaging literature can be more effective than simply providing arguments intended to persuade. Such approaches can have a tendency to make people feel attacked or immediately dismiss information that may confront previously held beliefs.

Above all, Rice says, it’s important to remember that some students will likely take to the information, some may to a lesser extent and others will likely not at all. The same holds true for nearly all subject matter, however, and providing students with the information is better than not trying at all.

The Summer Institute brought scholars together to discuss “ecologizing education,” or applying the theoretical lens of ecology to education. Rice, who has researched school lunches, environmental education, animals in education and philosophy of education applied the ideas of ecology to diet and education. The article is forthcoming in the journal Educational Theory.

“You can also apply those aspects of ecology to human beings,” Rice said. “The institute was thinking mainly about environmental education, but we’re entering a new geological era, the Anthropocene, and most scientists agree climate change is a very serious problem. We discussed what might be entailed if we were to take these phenomena seriously in education.”


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