Visual Learning: You Say Tomato, I Say Tomahto

This Visual Learning Lesson will get your students thinking about what's in the food they eat.

Images, photos, and pictures stimulate the mind. For the viewer, they offer a chance to connect and question. They also offer potential for play and imagination, and pulling the observer into purposeful messages. Most often, newspaper and magazine readers take a quick glance at photos and their captions. With this YES! lesson plan, you and your students can luxuriate—and pause—to truly understand an image, its message, and why it’s interesting (or not). 

Download this lesson plan as a PDF 


Industrial Farming Visual Learning

Photo courtesy of Dan Imhoff 



Step One: What do you notice? (before the facts)

Ask your students to make sense of the photograph by trusting their instincts of observation and inference. In doing so, the photograph offers possibilities and interpretations beyond a typical reading where the reader glances at the picture to reinforce their interpretation of the picture’s title or caption. Do not introduce any facts, captions, or other written words outside of the image. You may hear: tire tracks, dry dirt, wide rows of dirt that fade into the distance, lots of land.

Step Two: What are you wondering? (thinking about the facts)

After you’ve heard what your students are noticing, you’ll probably hear the peppering of questions: Where did the tire tracks come from? What are the rows of dirt for? Is this farmland? This is a good time to reveal the photo’s caption, accompanying quote, and facts about the actual situation. Watch how the conversation shifts from what they believe to be true to discerning the facts about the photo.

    • Photo caption:

Clean farming as is practiced in California’s Central Valley. In this case, a massive monoculture prepared for industrial tomatoes.

    • Photo Facts:

Dan Imhoff took this photo as part of his 2003 photographic journey through both farmland and wildlands of the United States. It appeared in his book “Farming With the Wild.” This photo provides a counterpoint to the sustainable farming practices he visited, and represents one of the many industrial farms in California’s Central Valley that uses “clean farming” techniques to eliminate animal contamination of crops. Clean farming is a “bare earth” method of farming used in industrial agriculture where all weeds and wildlife are removed to reduce potential pest interference with crop growth. Tomatoes are America’s second favorite vegetable, and one of the world’s most industrialized crops. When a tomato is grown in good soil it can be a great source of vitamins C and A, but supermarket varieties are grown for strengths other than nutritional value. They are bred for shipping durability, picked when green, and artificially gassed for vibrant red color. To compete with low tomato prices from Mexico and South America, American tomato producers have been known to compensate by paying less than legal wages and providing poor health conditions to their field workers.

Step Three: What next? (jumping off the facts)

Learning more about a photo leads to bigger questions and an opportunity to discuss broader issues and perspectives.

    • The natural season for growing tomatoes is June-September. Growing tomatoes out of season tends to require more energy and chemicals—think hothouses and imported produce. Could you limit your consumption of tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables to when they’re in season? What choices can you make based on what food is available to you?
    • Consider the journey of the food you eat. What are you supporting when consuming your food? How are the workers treated? What are the environmental impacts? Now that you know more, will you still choose to buy that particular food item?
    • People need access to healthy food at affordable prices. Is it possible not just to produce volumes of food, but to produce it in a way that nourishes both people and the planet, and be available at an affordable price?

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