Unit 1, Activity 3: A Corny Example

Activity Description/Rationale 

The guiding questions of this two-part activity are: what is the “story” of U.S. corn? How do we use corn and corn derivatives, and how often? Why might we use them in these ways? How does knowledge about the commodity chain of foods with corn-derived ingredients (i.e. agricultural production of corn, processing of corn, availability and marketing of these foods) change our understandings and preferences regarding these foods?.  This activity gives students concrete examples of the themes discussed in the 1st activity and the food commodity/supply chain discussed in the 2nd activity, especially production, processing and consumption.  It highlights many of the topics that the following units focus on, such as nutrition and health, food access, industrial agriculture, government policy and marketing.  It also encourages students to reflect on their personal experiences and tie them into the topics of the first two activities.


Students will…

- compare industrially-produced and homemade food containing corn derivatives (two types of candy corn) in terms of physical characteristics and personal preference

- identify the corn and corn-derived food products and ingredients students consume personally, and to what extent

- know that corn is one of the most important crops in U.S. industrial agriculture, and that it is used as produce, flour base, animal feed, and a source for deriving sweeteners, fuel, starch, emulsifiers and more

- identify key features of industrial agriculture, food processing, agricultural policies and marketing practices that will be discussed in greater detail in future lessons

- determine whether learning about the basics of the commodity chain of a food (in this case candy corn) changes their perceptions of its physical characteristics and their preferences

Universal Design for Learning/Differentiation

Materials (First Session)

1.      industrial candy corn (any common brand found at grocery or drug stores, just not anything artisanal or homemade)

2.      homemade candy corn (recipe in separate document)

3.      Candy Corn “Lab” (1 per group)

4.      computer with internet access connected to a projector (ideal but not absolutely necessary)

Estimated Time (First Session)
50 minutes

Pre-Activity (First Session)
Students will have become familiar with the basics uses of corn and corn-derived ingredients from the homework assignment.

Activity Instructions (First Session)

  1. Warm Up/Do Now (5 min): Ask students to individually answer the following questions: * what is corn? how do we use it? * are you “corn walking”/made of corn? (this question refers to The Omnivore’s Dilemma excerpt)
  2. Whole Class Discussion (10 min): Write students’ answers on the board, and ensure that the multiple ways corn is used in the U.S. industrial food system (e.g. as animal feed, as a whole food, and to produce sweeteners, emulsifiers, starches, oils, etc.) and some nutritional information about corn and corn-derived products are included.  Also correct any misconceptions (e.g. corn is a grain, not a vegetable).  Then explain that students are about to try two foods containing corn-derived ingredients.
  3. Group Work (20 min): Candy corn “lab”.  Ask student groups to complete questions 1-5 on the lab sheet (discuss and record the appearance, scent, taste (e.g. flavor, sweetness) and texture of the two types of candy corn (homemade and industrial) and their personal preferences).
  4. Wrap-up/Whole Class Discussion (15 min): Discuss the results of the lab, and ask students which type of candy corn they think contains more corn and why, but don’t reveal the answer until the next lesson.  Hand out the corn-derived ingredients sheet and tell students to identify as many ingredients in their food journals as they can. 

Assignments (First Session)
- continue reading excerpts from “Industrial: Corn” section of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and from Steve Ettlinger’s Twinkie, Deconstructed

- continue three day food journal and add predictions of how much corn is in your diet

- take a few photos of the aisles in the delis/bodegas, grocery stores and supermarkets in your neighborhood (make sure at least a few food brands are visible)

Assessment and Reflection (First Session)

The Warm Up/Do Now assesses students’ understandings of how corn is grown, processed, and used in the U.S. industrial food system.  

Instructor’s Notes (First Session)

It is possible (and probably would enrich the activity) to have the students make the homemade candy corn themselves, but it requires several pots, individual burners, and some waiting time.


Materials (Second Session)

  1. the documentary King Corn by Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis (clip about agricultural subsidies going to corn, small farms decreasing in number and large-scale farms increasing in number, from 0:14:00 to 0:19:00, and clip of making high fructose corn syrup at home and interview with processed food company executive, from 0:55:00 to 1:00:00)
  2. video clip from The Food Network’s “Unwrapped” about how industrial candy corn is made (http://www.seriouseats.com/2008/10/in-videos-how-candy-corn-is-made-goelitz-factory.html)
  3. Food Journal Results and Discussion Worksheet (1 per group)
  4. Corn-derived Ingredients List (handed out during first session)
  5. computer with internet access connected to a projector

Estimated Time (Second Session)
50 minutes

Pre-Activity (Second Session)
Students will have become familiar with the basics uses of corn and corn-derived ingredients from the homework assignment, will have completed questions 1-5 on the candy corn “lab”, will have completed a 3-day food journal, and will have brought in photos of food aisles from their neighborhoods.

Activity Instructions (Second Session)

  1. Warm Up/Do Now (5 min): Ask students to share answers about which candy corn contains more corn (maybe write a poll on the board), and reveal the answer – the industrial candy corn.  Explain that this is because of the abundance of corn-derived ingredients in the industrial candy corn (describe each one briefly), and then explain that they’re going to look at how many corn-derived ingredients are in their diets.
  2. Group Work (10 min): Have students compile results from corn-derived food journal on worksheet, and briefly reflect on them.  
  3. Whole Class Discussion (15 min): Discuss results of corn-derived food journal and worksheet questions.  Have students show some of the photos of food aisles in their neighborhoods and pick out a few food items from the photos.  Then look up the ingredients lists of these items and ask students to identify how many of them are corn-based, and which types of foods have more corn-based ingredients.  Ask students why this is the case.
  4. Presentation (15 min): Show the clips from King Corn and the Food Network video of industrial candy corn being made, and then photos of making homemade candy corn.
  5. Wrap-up/Whole Class Discussion (5 min):  Ask the whole class briefly whether they would change their answers to the lab (especially question 5) after viewing the clips, thinking particularly about the bits of info they learned about the environmental impact, human health implications, and economic costs and benefits of corn.  Ask them to further explain their answer to the wrap up question for homework, and use the information and experiences they’ve amassed in these first three activities, plus educated guessing to sketch out (in words and/or diagrams) the commodity chain of one of their favorite foods.  If the food has many ingredients, they should focus on 2-3.  Explain that they’ll revisit this sketch at the beginning of Unit 5 before they start their commodity chain research project.

Assignments (Second Session)

- read Reader F4 in Solar One’s Green Design Lab: Food and [something that addresses other nutrients not usually discussed] and look over Purdue University’s Advanced Life Science: Foods resources, especially Lab 1.16 Identifying Nutrients in Foods (http://www.ydae.purdue.edu/als/foods.html#)

- commodity chain rough sketch

- prepare for Unit 1 quiz

Assessment and Reflection (Second Session)
The Warm Up/Do Now asks students to reflect on their visceral and investigative experience in the first part of the activity, and assesses whether they gained knowledge from the readings and understand how to connect that knowledge to their experience.  The Group Work and first Whole Class Discussion assess whether students are able to use their knowledge from the readings to analyze the data they collected (their journals and photos).  The commodity chain rough sketch homework assignment provides an initial opportunity for reflection that students will further engage with later on in the module.

Instructor’s Notes (Second Session)

This is a really hefty session! It may spill over into the next class period.