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Unit 1, Activity 2: Food Commodity Chains

Activity Description/Rationale 

The guiding questions of this activity are: what is a food commodity/supply chain and what are its main features?  It introduces students to the logistics of our food systems through a step-by-step discussion of what happens during the production, processing, distribution, sale, consumption and disposal of food.  Students will also continue their exploration of the connections between food and other aspects of our lives.


Students will…

- identify the steps in a food commodity/supply chain

- know the basics of what each step entails

- reinforce their identification of some of the major connections between food and other aspects of society: economy, environment, health, culture and politics

Universal Design for Learning/Differentiation


1. a whole food (e.g. an apple, a lemon, a head of broccoli)

Estimated Time of Activity
50 minutes

Students will have become familiar with the basics of food commodity/supply chains from the homework assignments.

Activity Instructions

  1. Warm Up/Do Now (5 min): Ask students to individually write down and/or draw what they think a commodity chain is.
  2. Whole Class Discussion (10 min): Write down students’ answers on the board, and establish that a commodity chain is the “story” of a commodity (product) from it raw materials to packaged consumer product to use by consumers and disposal.  You can use the steps listed in the readings, but I find them to be redundant sometimes and prefer to use the following: production, processing (with multiple substeps for sorting vs. packaging, etc.), distribution, sale, consumption and disposal
  3. Group Work (15 min): Food commodity chain narrative activity.  Ask student groups to “tell the story” of a food item (physically present, pass it around so students can handle it) from “seed in the ground to seed in the trash”.  What happens to the item while it's being grown, processed, transported, sold and consumed? They can represent the story in any way they’d like – full sentences, outline, visual representation – but it should be as detailed as possible. 
  4. Whole Class Discussion (15 min):  Draw (or have students draw) each group’s story on the board, asking for clarification and explanation of each event and feature.  Pose further questions based on gaps and/or misunderstandings in the story. (See photo examples of this discussion in a separate document attached to this activity page.)
  5. Wrap-up (5 min): Explain that a food commodity chain can be a useful format for food research, because by looking at the chronological chapters in the story of just one thing (character), step by step, various influences on and interactions with that thing are uncovered.  Add that the students will be working with and thinking about food commodity chains frequently in this module, and ask them to start thinking about what the commodity chain of one of their favorite foods might look like.  There will be an assignment on this after the next topic.


- read the “Industrial: Corn” section of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and as much of Chapters 1, 6-8, and 26 from Steve Ettlinger’s Twinkie, Deconstructed as possible (for two sessions, so half the class can read one and half the other, and then switch for the following session)

- continue three day food journal

Assessment and Reflection

The Warm Up/Do Now and Group Work assess students’ prior knowledge and guesses about what commodity/supply chains are, and the food commodity chain narrative activity assesses how they apply that knowledge in the context of food systems.  The Wrap-up begins the reflection process that students will engage in more fully at the end of the unit.

Instructor’s Notes

More advanced students could do National Geographic’s “A Supply Chain” activity (, either for homework or extra credit.