To inspire more sustainable habits, Jennifer Macbeth, MS, uses a blend of electronics and introspection to highlight “bad” habits—and inspire good ones.
Instructor in Integrated Studies, Florida Gulf Coast University, Fort Myers
MS and BS in Biology
Jennifer Macbeth, MS, keeps the goal of “living in a responsible balance with the environment” close to her heart—so close that every summer she helps rescue bunnies that have outgrown their appeal after the Easter holiday.
The same is true in her work as an instructor at Florida Gulf Coast University. For example, in her course Beans and Bugs: Impacts and Solutions in Food Production, Macbeth inspires students to think more deeply about the sweeping impact of agribusiness—and their own environmental footprint. Her lectures, class discussions, field trips, guest speakers, and activities all are designed to open students’ minds (and mouths) to sustainably produced edibles—including protein sources like (of course) beans and bugs.
A key to her interdisciplinary approach is to examine the journey of food products from the farm to the grocery shelf to the kitchen table. “It’s very eye-opening when [students] look at how far food has traveled, and its impact on the people growing and harvesting it,” says Macbeth.
People do not consider how food production affects the earth
Most students have never thought about food production and, perhaps more dismaying, they have an inherent trust of the food in grocery stores and restaurants. “Their preconceived notion is that the food industry is here to create healthy products for them to eat, not to make money. They never question buying something at the grocery store, because ‘if they’re selling it, it must be good for me,’” Macbeth says.
Turning a meal into a teachable moment
In addition to taking students to food production sites, bringing in guest speakers, and providing other engaging activities, Macbeth has students do a self-assessment on their own eating habits. Three times a semester, they look at the food they eat and the leftovers and other waste that they throw away. After creating a “food footprint portfolio,” she asks students to apply their learnings to develop a self-improvement plan to reduce their individual ecological impact.
See resources shared by Jennifer Macbeth, MSSee materials
“Hunter-gatherers were very connected to food and understood it; now it’s in a grocery store, and [most people] have no idea how it got there. Students never question buying something at the grocery store because they think, ‘If they’re selling it, it must be good for me.’”— Jennifer Macbeth, MS
Course description: Students investigate the issues and solutions revolving around food production. Topics include agricultural practices and policy; environmental effects of producing food; nutritional illnesses and the obesity epidemic; use of technology to increase food supplies; human and animal rights violations; alternative food lifestyles; and solutions towards a sustainable agricultural system. We will explore these issues through discussions, student-led presentations, reflective writing, case studies, debates, videos, guest speakers, and field trips.
Macbeth’s Food Footprint Portfolio: A blended-learning activity
Most of what students know about food production comes from sources such as social media and friends, so Macbeth requires them to do research, which sometimes supports their ideas and other times refutes them. “It’s very eye-opening when students look at food miles, how far it has traveled, its impact on the people growing or harvesting it,” she says.
One of the most powerful blended-learning activities in her tool kit is the Food Footprint Portfolio, which helps students analyze their individual ecological footprint—then use course learnings to provide suggestions for self-improvement. Here are the steps she takes to walk them through the activity:
Calculations: Have students take a survey to find out their ecological footprint
The first step in this activity is for students to go on the Global Footprint Network website and plug information into the Ecological Footprint Calculator, which is available (in eight languages) for computers and mobile devices. Macbeth instructs students to choose the option “Add details to improve accuracy” so that they can get a better picture of their habits. (At the end of the survey, students get to see how many “Earths” would be needed if everyone lived as they do.) Students must screenshot this final screen and share it with Macbeth, with a written reflection on how they felt about their result. Finally, she tells them, “Evaluate your lifestyle and what these results mean. Make connections between your results and that week’s readings.”
Journal: Ask students to track what they eat (and what they throw out)
Three times in the semester—during the first week, at midterm, and in the final week of class—students must record for five days their specific consumption of food and drink and any food-related waste (such as packaging and thrown-away food). She allows them to use whatever method they like to organize and collect the data, including a blog, Excel spreadsheet, or journal (though obviously a digital journal would prevail over a paper notebook).
Feedback: Offer comments and suggestions to guide students in their journey
For both the ecological footprint and the food journals, Macbeth provides commentary and suggestions to help students find where there is room for improvement—and find actionable solutions. “I really encourage them to make note of their food choices,” she says. “Was it organic, local, packaged, GMO? In terms of waste, I’ll ask them to clarify: Was it food waste [or] packaging, and how could they work to make alternate choices?”
Then Macbeth asks her students to consider how their choices, as reflected in their logs, do or do not support the food industry, the health of the environment, and their own health and finances. “The main thing I usually offer is for them to ‘vote with their dollar,’” she says. “What are better ways they can cast a vote either for or against something in the food industry by using their consumer power?”
Students use Macbeth’s notes and their own responses as they compile their final Food Footprint Portfolios.
Final product: Ask for a final Food Footprint Portfolio that reflects on habits—and solutions
The final deliverable for this assignment is a Food Footprint Portfolio, which is due the final week of class. It includes all of the above materials, as well as students’ solutions for shrinking their individual impact on the planet. For this, Macbeth asks students to synthesize information from the readings and answer these questions:
- Which solutions from the readings do you feel are most tangible to working toward sustainable food solutions, either as individuals or as a society?
- Which areas or aspects of your life need the most improvement or are areas where you could make changes? For example, is most of your food processed or prepared fresh? Was much of it local or from far away? How much waste was involved (packing, leftovers, food scraps, etc.)?
- What differences or improvements did you notice from the beginning of the semester compared to your final week of data?
Discussion: Use in-class time to help students share their best ideas
Finally, Macbeth spends one of the last class periods with students working in small groups in which they share their solutions with one another. Each group is tasked with choosing their top three solutions, then sharing them with the class as a whole.
“It’s not about indoctrination,” adds Macbeth. “I never reveal much about my own food lifestyle. The only thing I want is for students to begin to eat consciously,” she says.
Anecdotal evidence shows that many of them do, she adds. On more than one occasion, the parent of a student has called her to say, “Now I have to buy all good foods and no Pop-Tarts.” Despite their chiding, she can tell from their tone that they are secretly happy that their kids’ eating habits are healthier. As for her? She is happy, too—but that is no secret to anyone.