Transportation and the Food Industry: Past, Present and Future



Grade Level & Subject: Grades 9-12: Social Studies, Economics

Length: 1 class period


After completing this lesson, students will be able to:

  • Identify the foods that are local in their area.
  • Evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of local food in order to make sustainable decisions when buying food.
  • Consider the prospects of future food transportation and how it can be improved.

National Standards Addressed:[1]

This lesson addresses the following National Education Standards for History from The National Center for History in the Schools:

This lesson addresses the following National Geography Standards from The National Geographic Society:

As a result of activities in grades K-12, all students should:

As a result of activities in grades K-12, all students should:

  • Understand how to apply geography to interpret the present and plan for the future.

Materials Needed:

  • Computers
  • Blackboard
  • Projector (optional)
  • Reproducible #1 – Where Do Your Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Come From?
  • Reproducible #2 – Sample Menu
  • Reproducible #3 – Local and Not so Local Menu
  • Reproducible #4 – Food, Fuel, and Freeways
  • Reproducible #5 – Map of North and South America

Students will be assessed through the following activities:

  • Completion of their menu.
  • Ability to work well in their group.
  • Participation in class discussions.



Relevant Vocabulary:

  • Agribusiness:an industry engaged in the producing operations of a farm, the manufacture and distribution of farm equipment and supplies, and the processing, storage, and distribution of farm commodities.[2] These operations are often very large and have been replacing traditional family farms.
  • Food miles:the distance food travels from the farm to your household.[3]
  • Import: bringing products from one country into another.[4]
  • Local food:there is little agreement on what “local” food actually is, but it is defined in the 2008 Food, Conservation, and Energy Act as a food product that is transported less than 400 miles from its origin, or within the state in which it was produced. However, many people think that this distance is too large to be considered “local.”[5]
  • Locavore:one who eats foods grown locally whenever possible.[6]

Background Information:

We have become so accustomed to going to the grocery store and having the ability to buy nearly any food that we desire that it is easy to forget that much of this food isimported over very long distances. For example, nearly all of the bananas that we buy in the United States are imported from Guatemala, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Honduras, or Colombia.[7] While we are fortunate to have the choice to eat foods from all over the world, we must also realize that in doing so we are greatly impacting our earth by releasing more carbon dioxide into the air:. Food arrives to us by carbon dioxide releasing modes of transportation; trucks, trains, ships, and – the worst for the environment – planes. On average, the food that we eat must travel an average of 1,500 miles before it gets to our plates.[8]

Recently, the “locavore” movement – a movement that advocates local food – has become more popular. People are starting to pay attention to where their food comes. Not only is local food better for the environment, but it is also better for local economies because the money directly supports local farmers as opposed to large companies – also known as agribusiness – that are most likely not even in the buyer’s own state.

As information is disseminated about the sustainability of eating locally, the movement evolves and it will continue to do so as more people become involved. Still, questions remain: if the entire country begins eating food locally, will there be enough to feed everyone? Will agribusiness become necessary? How much better for the environment is local food if food sometimes must be grown in places that are unsuitable for farming, require more irrigation or fertilizer? These are some of the questions that students will grapple during this lesson plan.


Average Distance by Produce Truck to Chicago Market LeopoldCenterfor Sustainable Agriculture:

Foods of California Tribes – American Indian Health and Diet Program:



Warm-up: Favorite Fresh Food

  1. Ask students in the classroom what their favorite fruit or vegetables are, and record their answers on the board.
  2. Have students identify where they think each fruit or vegetable originated. Write their guesses on the board. Then, hand out or show on a projector Reproducible #1 – Where Do Your Fruits and Vegetables Come From? Ask students to point out any differences between what is written on the board and what is on the handout.
  3. Begin a discussion by asking students the following questions:
  4. Are you surprised where these fruits and vegetables come from? Answers will vary.
  5. How do you think these fruits and vegetables made their way to you? Most milk, fruit, meat, and vegetables are transported by refrigerated truck.[9]
  6. If you only ate local fruit, what would you be able to eat and when? Vary by region, use Reproducible #1 – Where Do Your Fruits and Vegetables Come From?for information.
  7. Is it usually more expensive to buy local food or food from an industrial farm? Why? Usually local food is more expensive because local farms often use practices that are more sustainable but not as cost-beneficial.
  8. Using Reproducible #1 – Where Do Your Fruits and Vegetables Come From? create two lists on the board: on one side, write local foods and the other write foods that have traveled long distances. What are the pros and cons of each? What similarities do they have? What differences?

Activity One: Local Menus

  1. Students will now create menus for local and non-local food in different areas of the United States. Divide the class into 6 equal groups: northeast, southeast, middle west, southwest, west, and Mexico and Central America. Each group must make a menu for their area using food that is local to that region,and the last must be food that is commonly eaten in the United States but commonly grown in Mexico and Central America. As an example, show on a projector or pass around Reproducible #2 – Sample Menu. Review with the students and allow time for questions.
  2. Hand out Reproducible #3– Local and Not so Local Menu for students to complete in their groups. Have students use Reproducible #1 – Where Do Your Fruits and Vegetables Come From? for help, and their general knowledge of where food is grown. If there is a school library available, students can also visit that during this time to find cookbooks for specific areas of the United States (for example, The Northwest Vegetarian Cookbook by Debra Daniels-Zeller).
  3. Once students have completed their menu, have each group present what they have created. Lead the class in a discussion with the following questions:
  4. What are some similarities and differences between each of the menus? Answers will vary.
  5. What surprised you most in your research or other groups’ menus? Answers will vary.
  6. Would you be content with eating from your local menu, or would you want other foods that cannot be grown in your area? Answers will vary.
  7. Hand out Reproducible #4 – Food, Fuel, and Freeways. Have students read aloud or to themselves, and lead a discussion by asking the following questions:
  8. What struck you or surprised you about this excerpt? Answers will vary.
  9. When you or your family buys food, do you consider the miles that your food has traveled? Answers will vary.
  10. Pass out Reproducible #5 – Map of North and South America. Have students pinpoint where they have eaten food from in the past 5 days, and draw a line from that place to the student’s home. Have some students share their maps, and ask the following question:
  11. Is being able to eat foods from all over the world worth the carbon footprint? Answers will vary.

Wrap Up: Future of Food Transportation and Origin

  1. Students will now consider where the future is taking us in terms of food production and transportation. Ask students the following questions:
    1. Where do you see the future of food transportation heading? Will we be able to genetically modify all our food so we don’t have to transport our avocados, or will we find different ways to transport our food? Encourage students to be creative.
    2. The “locavore” movement has been very popular lately because eating local food reduces your carbon footprint and helps the local economy by supporting the farmers in the community. Now that you know what eating like a “locavore” would mean for you, what do you think about the movement?
    3. Right now local food is usually more expensive than food from a factory farm. However, what would happen if the demand for local food increased? If more people demanded local food, the supply would increase as well and the food would become cheaper.

Extension Activities:

  1. Visit or set up a phone call with a local farmer. Have the class come up with interview questions to find out what is grown on the farm, if the farmer eats local food during the off-season, how he gets his food to farmers’ markets or other venues, etc.
  2. Shipping food is the most energy efficient way to get it from place to place, but how much of our food is shipped vs. flown in planes? Have students break into groups and have each group research one mode of transportation commonly used for food. Ask students to present what they have found, and lead a discussion afterwards concentrating on which method is used the most, which is the cheapest, which is the fastest, which is the most energy efficient, etc.



In this lesson plan, students learned about the local food options in their region, and explored the benefits of being able to eat food from all over the world. Students also came to understand the consequences of eating food that has been transported from afar, and evaluated their own choices in buying food. Finally, students considered how the local food movement might evolve, and what food transportation has in store for us in the future.



Katie Alexander – Author

 Education Intern, Earth Day Network

Maggie Ollove – Editor

            Education Associate, Earth Day Network

[2]“Agribusiness Entry.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved April 20, 2011 from

[3]“Energy Matters.” K-12 Energy Education Program. Retrieved April 1, 2011 from


[5]Martinez, Steve et al. “Local Food Systems: Concepts, Impacts, and Issues.” Economic Research Service. Retrieved April 1, 2011 from

[6]“Locavore Entry.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved April 1, 2011 from

[7]“Where Do Your Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Come From?” LeopoldCenterfor Sustainable Agriculture. Retrieved April 1, 2011 from

[8]Jeffery, Yvonne, Liz Barclay, Michael Grosvenor. Green Living for Dummies. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Publishing, 2008.

[9]“Food Distribution and Preservation.” OfficialStateof Michigan Website. Retrieved April 6, 2011 from