CHEW ON THIS: Scientific Inquiry by the City, Not by the Book


Amanda Matles
Independent artist, educator
Center for Urban Pedagogy, Brooklyn, NY

Where in the world does the food we eat actually come from? How does its journey to our plates affect the environment and our quality of life? These two questions were my point of departure for an investigation into the global flows of food conducted as a Teaching Artist in collaboration with high school students of four Environmental Science classes at The Heritage School in East Harlem, New York City through The Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP). The project was originally conducted in the spring of 2006.

CUP is a Brooklyn-based nonprofit organization that investigates the built environment by facilitating collaborations among advocates, architects, artists, city workers, educators, policy makers, residents and students. Investigations begin with questions about how communities work: How are prisons designed? Where does garbage go? Where does our food come from? Why are there abandoned buildings? Project participants use a research-based, design-driven process to develop inventive tools for spreading knowledge and facilitating change. CUP projects take many forms: architectural proposals, board games, comic books, exhibitions, films and videos, maps, models, posters, walking tours, and workshops. CUP’s work grows from a belief that the power of imagination is central to the practice of democracy, and that the work of governing must engage the dreams and visions of citizens. CUP believes in the legibility of the world around us. By learning how to investigate, we train ourselves to change what we see.(1)

To this end, “Chew On This” is an investigation into our ideas about what food is and the process of growing, transporting, packaging, preparing, and displaying these necessary and mundane elements of daily consumption. Participants identified and deconstructed their own favorite foods into raw ingredients. Foods such as hamburgers, pizza, Chinese food, Philly cheese steaks, ice cream, shrimp, pasta and some fruits and vegetables were used. Many participants ultimately regarded the food they eat not just as a bundle of calories in their respective and delicious forms, but as parts of ever moving commodity systems that come from an array of particular origins and certainly involve the work of a lot of people. To reveal this is to realize the effort and complications of the system that is often obscured by the system itself. Participants made schematic drawings that illustrate step by step what they think a particular ingredient goes through to become part of our edible landscape. This exchange about General Tso’s chicken is a small glimpse into the process of one participant who knew more than she was possibly willing to share with the teacher at first:

Ophelia: Miss, I don’t know the answer to this chicken thing, can you just tell me what to put down? Amanda: Well, how does the chicken end up when you buy it?
Ophelia: In Chinese food. General Tso’s.
Amanda: Where do you think the cook got the chicken?
Ophelia: (Impatiently) I don’t know, off a truck.
Amanda: Ok, how did it get on the truck.
Ophelia: A man put it there.
Amanda: Did the man put live chickens on the truck and where do you think the truck drove from? Ophelia: (Laugh) Oh my God no! That’s disgusting. They got dead way before the came in the city. They came dead and in pieces, but they were alive on the farm.
Amanda: Ok, this farm you speak of is? Do we have a way of knowing where it is, what it’s like there? Do we know if it’s even in this country?
Ophelia: What?! It can’t be in another country…I don’t know. If it’s in another country, why don’t those people eat the chickens? Now they’re here and I have to figure out what’s up with them. How do you know?
Amanda: I don’t actually know either but I’ve seen on some packages “Made in the US” and I’ve noticed it lacking on other packages. They could be from anywhere, they could be from New Jersey, you know. They could have been on a boat, they could have been frozen first. How would you like to find out more about it?
Ophelia: You could go to the restaurant and ask the restaurant, but I can’t do that. I have class next period. Or you could look on the Internet about it.
Amanda: Yeah. Next time you go, ask them, see what they say. It will help us create a picture of the whole system. Let us know what you find.

Participants later traced their end product foods back to places as far away as China and Brazil and as close as New Jersey. Participants then calculated the fuel resources required of these journeys to bring their favorite foods to East Harlem. Food mile calculations turned out to be difficult to calculate and seemed even impossible to accurately figure out given the complicated system of distribution we were now aware of. One solution was to look to other people in the city who were involved in food distribution. Local farmers at a neighborhood farmers’ market were interviewed for more information on the farm end of food. We also visited Hunt’s Point in the Bronx, a place where most food distributed around New York City passes through and may even be the largest wholesale market in the Eastern United States. A blind taste test with organic and conventionally grown foods grown around the world, and a foraging expedition in Central Park were also conducted as participants investigated their own notions of what they considered edible.

The “Chew On This” project mostly brings problems and poses questions about the existing system and asks, “What do you think about this?” and “What if anything should change in this system?” The approach to the subject is inquiry based because food politics and “norms” are constructions of culture; they can change and are seen through many lenses, or for some, are not yet seen at all. Where the unfolding of learning and the ascertainment of knowledge happens through the investigation, through dialogue, and constant opportunity for critical thinking, rather than just absorbing a premeditated narrative designed solely by the teacher, there is an opportunity for real engagement with the subject. There is no “correct” answer but instead the emergence of a map of related concepts that reveals our present world to be anything but static, immovable, or singular. The aforementioned educational practice for me is mostly attributed to the work of Paulo Freire, who writes inPedagogy of the Oppressed:

Problem-posing education affirms men and women as beings in the process of becoming – as unfinished, uncompleted beings in and with a likewise unfinished reality… Problem-posing education – which accepts neither a “well-behaved” present nor a predetermined future – roots itself in the dynamic present and becomes revolutionary. [It is] revolutionary futurity. Hence it is prophetic (and, as such, hopeful).” (2)

Ultimately the participants of “Chew On This” were not pressed to come to any consensus on the food related topics we investigated and held discussion about. However, the participants took seriously the project of synthesizing our data to design a large scale poster which introduced others to our edible environment and a 20 paged zine containing diagrams and illustrations, a lesson plan and recipes put together by the participants using ingredients we learned to identify in city parks.


The creation of the visual material is a large part of the learning-knowing process that flips on its head who is teaching and who is learning. We are both learning and leading at the same time. Through this educational practice, the goal of education is not to see that everyone has exactly the same knowledge and on the same terms, but that participants have an environment where they can link their own experiences with the politics of science and culture, to question knowledge, to imagine what is not yet there.


1. The Center for Urban Pedagogy, (2009). Retrieved October, 2009 from
2.Paolo Freire, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”, 30th Anniversary Edition, trans. Myra Bergman Ramos (New York, New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd, 2008), 84

Amanda Matles

Amanda Matles is an artist whose practice investigates our peculiar relationship to the natural environment. Her work explores the social, political, religious, mythological, and economic impulses that have shaped our various relationships to and roles within the environs of the earth. She has exhibited her artwork and executed ecologically driven projects in the U.S. and Europe. She is currently working on a Certificate in Horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden and lives in Brooklyn, NY.