Activity: Classifying Food

Erin Sperling and Sara Scharf

Activity: Classification of Food as a Way to Understand Diversity and Socio-cultural History

Erin Sperling, PhD and Sara Scharf, PhD are freelance academics with deep and wide-ranging expertise. Erin, a sessional lecturer, has taught numerous elementary science methods and environmental education courses at post-secondary institutions in Ontario and has a doctorate in the field of food justice education. Sara, a professional academic editor and cybersecurity researcher, wrote her dissertation on the history and development of field guides in botany.

Learning Outcomes

After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:

  • Articulate their understanding of their personal and cultural connections to food and begin to analyze these connections in relation to their own and others’ contexts.
  • Identify a variety of food products and understand their cultural and/or historical origins, including influences of colonization and globalization.
  • Express multiple ways of knowing food and name the various stakeholders in food systems, including ecological, medicinal, industrial, and agricultural interests.

Classification of Food

This activity on the classification of food plants encourages participants to draw on their own cultural and historical backgrounds to explore food-knowledge development in an inclusive way. The activity was developed by working with teacher candidates to encourage them to see food as an inclusive material for teaching across subject areas and supporting knowledge-sharing.

In this activity, students explore and classify food plants as a way to highlight the importance of biodiversity and to examine the role of scientific study and classification as just one of several ways of understanding the world, including Indigenous and other localized approaches. An additional goal is to help participants recognize their own biases, as well as the views and experiences of others. Our biases have an impact on the way we view and encounter the world and the assumptions we may make.

In particular, students may explore specific skills of observation, using inference, classification, and the practices of information organization used to represent knowledge. Participants will draw upon their own experiences with particular foods—including cultural practices and personal preferences—to demonstrate that there are multiple useful ways of looking at our complex and varied world, that scientific classification grew out of local classifications and works as a bridge among different local classifications, and that these different ways of engaging continue to inform each other.

This activity can be done with real food items, paper and pens or markers, paper towels and knives (for cutting open fruits and vegetables). It can be carried out in person, or through virtual delivery, using a Google Images search or the food randomizer site, for example. The latter is helpful for selecting a variety of foods for students to consider, as opposed to having students preselect the food items, which may bring unconscious bias into the activity, and which also eliminates the possibility that students may encounter new food items in the activity. However, it should be noted that a disadvantage to the food randomizer site is that its selection options are limited and already biased toward northern North American or European cuisine. If meeting in person is not possible, the instructor can also pre-select a list of images without letting the students know the names of the items. Students will have their own preconceptions about what each item might be. These preconceptions should also be explored.

For the virtual delivery of this activity, use the website(s) selected to make a list including at least four fruits and four vegetables. Students may draw and colour in the objects as well, based on their own knowledge, or do some quick research online for images to print and cut out or copy. Be careful not to have them read too much detail about the use or origin of the item selected.

Once you have a clear list of 8 to 10 items, have the students follow the directions below, making adjustments for virtual or in-person participation:

  • Arrange yourselves into groups of about four.
  • Put away your phones and close your browsers. Do not look anything up!
  • First, on your own, investigate the contents of the “food basket.” Try not to discuss your thoughts and memories with others yet, but take note of them.
  • On your own, decide how you will organize your items. Write out clusters and sub-clusters (if appropriate) of food items with clear categories. Label the categories. There are no wrong answers!
  • Write down a brief summary of why you organized your items the way you did. What guided your choices?
  • Within your group of four, share and compare your organization and analysis. Respectfully discuss your results and consider how similar and different they are from each other. Consider both the categories you and your classmates have chosen as well as the way you have each organized the information.
  • Come to a group consensus, if possible, about how to organize the items in your “food basket.” Write down and/or illustrate your classification to share with class on big paper/digitally.
  • Some possible ways of classifying the food items include: colour, connections to family or celebrations, cooking method, taste, geographic origins, texture, plant body part (i.e., root, stem, fruit), and others. Possible modes of representing the information could include a flow chart, matrix, pie chart, or graph. There are no limits and no wrong answers.
a long table covered in a paper tablecloth and with six groups of different fruits and vegetables
Figure 1: One way to arrange the food in delivering this activity (photo: authors)

This activity highlights how to include other ways of viewing the world through diversifying modes of classification. The two engagements—individual and group—show multiple ways of looking at our complex and varied world, and that science is just one way among many. Even whether a given item counts as a fruit or vegetable is open for discussion.

Additional options include selecting a food or two from the lists and asking students to do further research to gather additional background information. This may include which of the foods are indigenous to the local site, which ones were introduced but can be grown locally, and which must be imported. It may also include learning which foods have cultural meaning to some groups and why, and/or which foods grow best in certain conditions or climates, and why.

Discussion Questions

  • What did you notice about your connections to food compared to other members of your group?
  • How did your group come to consensus about the final categorizations and organization that was displayed to the class?
  • What factors did your group discuss that helped to determine individual and group representations of the food items?
  • What do you notice about the overall class representations of their food items? What were the more and less common ways of organizing and categorizing food items? In what ways can we use this information to support food studies actions?
  • Scientific classification came out of an effort to produce a common language that would bridge different local ways of knowing and communicating about living things. In what ways is having a common scientific language useful? In what ways is it less useful?

Note: If this activity is to be held in person, tell the students ahead of time that fresh produce will be brought into the classroom and give them the opportunity to indicate if there are any serious allergies that should be taken into account.



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Food Studies: Matter, Meaning, Movement Copyright © 2022 by Erin Sperling and Sara Scharf is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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