It started off as a typical Friday, and the energy was palpable in Ms. Sarmiento’s third period classroom at the High School for Law, Advocacy and Community Justice at Martin Luther King Jr. Educational Campus, the site of Teens for Food Justice’s newest in-school hydroponic farm. In anticipation of starting a new Urban Agriculture + STEM and Food Justice curriculum in a few weeks, students have been exploring myriad topics meant to contextualize their upcoming experiences on the farm. Some of these include the history of hydroponics, industrial agriculture, different applications of urban agriculture, and we even played a game of agricultural Jeopardy.
Upon learning that organic food often has more flavor than conventionally grown and produced food, one student declared he can always spot the differences between organic and conventional milk, stating that organic milk unquestionably tastes worse. That comment was enough to trigger the classes’ inchoate enthusiasm. The only natural response to the student’s claim was to offer him a blind taste test, which I would set up the following week, should he want to take part. He quickly agreed, and we were on.
At the time, I didn’t think that anyone in the class would remember we had agreed on this come the following week, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. I came to our next class period prepared with a carton of both conventional and organic milk hoping that our student was still willing to take part. I planned to use the taste-test as a transition into deeper discussions related to farming and soil health, and eventually bring things back hydroponics.
Our student arrived to class 10 minutes early and immediately asked if I had remembered to bring in the milk for his blind-taste test. I affirmed, and spent a few minutes setting up. As other students started to filter in, they also inquired about taking part. By the start of class, 13 students were participating in the blind taste test, and were studiously engaging with the milk’s color and viscosity as if they were sommeliers discerning the varietal of grape they are about to drink.
Until that class, the majority of student participation had been directly prompted by me, and students were fairly reticent to offer their opinions or thoughts. But that morning, students had an organic conversation about organics. Ardent defenders of organic food staunchly advocated their views, and skeptical students asked questions and defended their own assertions. I am still amazed that the catalyst for that lively debate was a simple blind taste test of two dairy products.
As a teacher, there is no better feeling than being able to take a step back and letting students steer the ship, if only for a few minutes. At Teens For Food Justice, our goal is to empower students to be advocates and leaders in their communities on issues of food access, nutrition, and health.
Ultimately, the blind taste test proved to be a powerful demonstration of the utility of hands-on experiential learning. If that simple activity elicited such passionate responses and vibrant dialogue, I can only imagine the excitement and energy that these students will bring once we start growing over 1,500 pounds of food per month in their new high capacity hydroponic farm in just a few weeks.