Media Literacy Education as Part of the Food Justice Movement

By Sox Sperry, Project Look Sharp Program Associate

On February 18, during a community discussion at the library on the enduring importance of Black History Month, someone asked about how educators can most effectively engage student dialogue in a society shaped by institutions of racial entitlement and oppression. Dr. Margaret Washington and Dr. Robert Harris both said that it was through the use of contemporary media, especially film, that students can be stimulated to look more deeply into the critical questions about justice and resistance. Project Look Sharp, an educational initiative of the School of Humanities and Sciences at Ithaca College, develops awareness of the primacy of media in our children’s world as the basis for developing an innovative approach to media literacy education.

Fifteen years ago, Look Sharp’s founders, IC professor Cyndy Scheibe and LACS teacher Chris Sperry, asked teachers what they needed to help their students to become effective media critics. Teachers responded that they needed tools that would allow them to incorporate media questions into the teaching of core content. Who made this message and for what purpose? Is this information credible? How do you know? Who might benefit from the message and who might be harmed by it? With this teacher mandate, Project Look Sharp offers trainings in the integration of critical-thinking media literacy into classroom curricula at all education levels. In 2012 we were invited to provide staff development experiences close to home for ICSD and at New Roots, and far away, in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.

We have created eighteen curriculum kits with hundreds of lessons using media document analysis as the basis for teaching within a wide range of subject and grade levels. All of these are available for free on our website, “Critical Thinking and Health,” a first-grade curriculum, uses children’s TV commercials to help students focus on food groups and nutritional messages in advertising. “Economics in U.S. History,” a middle-school curriculum, uses World War I posters to explore the role of food production in wartime. A high-school curriculum, “Media Construction of Chemicals in the Environment,” uses posters, book covers, and web pages on food additives to ask questions about worker and consumer health and about the intent of messages and credibility of sources. “Global Media Perspectives,” a ninth-grade global studies curriculum, uses film clips to explore the 2008 food crisis in Africa and the cultural lens of its media construction.

In recent years, we have received funding from the Park Foundation to focus our curriculum development efforts on issues of peace, social justice, and sustainability. “Media Construction of Peace” and “Media Construction of Social Justice” use media documents and critical questions to teach US history students about the often-neglected histories of antiwar and social justice movements from nineteenth-century anti-imperialist and abolition movements to Iraq Vets for Peace and the prison justice movements of the twenty-first century.

Our current efforts, “Media Constructions of Sustainability: Food, Water and Agriculture” and “Media Constructions of Sustainability: Finger Lakes,” use a systems-thinking approach to connect climate change, energy, and economy as a means to explore issues of access, ownership, and community engagement for food and water security. The lesson “Guiding Our Food Choices” compares fifteen web pages of food diagrams and food-choice information, asking students to consider who made the web page and for what purpose, and how the organization’s mission helped to shape the message. As you might guess, the USDA, McDonald’s, and the student campaign Real Food Challenge created very different messages about what constitutes a sustainable food system.

Another lesson, “Climate Change, Agriculture and Sustainability,” asks students to read and compare text summaries produced by Monsanto and the Worldwatch Institute about agricultural efforts to mitigate climate change. Students then break into small groups to analyze six short videos on a variety of agricultural practices that might help to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Students uncover rich differences as they contrast the practices of biofuel and biochar production, community gardens, and three sisters planting and contemplate different producers’ intents from Time Warner Cable News to the Rochester Roots youth organization.

What are the pedagogical models that invite deep and thoughtful discussion of who must control our food systems in the face of climate change, fossil-fuel dependence, and economic inequality? Project Look Sharp is working with educators in our community and world to support teachers in their directives to help students learn to question and to think in complex ways about systemic problems. These same pedagogical tools — media inquiry based in critical-thinking questions — are essential tools for community food movements to bring education in service to action.

How can you practice these principles in your own classroom or around your dinner table? Go to Project Look Sharp’s website ( and download free media and teaching materials. Attend one of our April workshops: “Where Food, Social Justice and Media Meet: Critical Thinking with Our Kids,” April 9, 7-8:30 pm at GreenStar; and “From the iPad into the Fire: Engaging Citizens to Address Climate Change Using the Tools of Media Literacy,” April 20, 11 am – 12 pm at the Climate Smart & Climate Ready Conference at Cinemapolis. Most important, you can continue to deepen your own practice of asking questions about the media messages related to food that seem to appear everywhere we turn.


Originally Printed In “GreenlLeaf: The Newsletter of Greenstar Cooperative Market”  April 2013. Vol 29 No 4.
Reprinted With Permission 



Powered by Facebook Comments