WEST MIDDLESEX, Pa. — After her experience at the Ag Institute for Teachers, Teresa Hessmann knew she wanted to do something new to help her students better understand how their food got from the farm to their plates.

Hessmann, who teaches family and consumer science at West Middlesex Area High School in southwestern Pennsylvania, participated in the teacher training program that is conducted each summer by the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau. Teachers participate in hands-on classes and field trips, and interact with farmers and others who are part of agriculture. They return to their schools with the trunks of their cars filled with materials to use with their students and to share with other teachers at their schools.

The institute also provided teachers with access to the teaching materials and programs that are available online from the American Farm Bureau Federation Foundation for Agriculture.

As she was planning for school year 2018-2019, the Food Truck Challenge on the AFBF foundation site caught her attention. Food trucks are becoming popular everywhere and Hessmann thought that by having her students create a food truck plan involving foods that they like, it would be an education about where food comes from.

“I brought in speakers,” Hessmann said. “We heard from Mike Kovach of Walnut Hill Farm about why buying local makes a difference.”

Kovach produces grassfed pork, beef, lamb, chicken and eggs on his farm in Sharpsville, not too far from the students’ school in West Middlesex.

“We heard several food truck owners talk about their business,” said student Zach Long.

Besides the food truck owners, Hessmann said, one of the speakers was a chef who spoke about his work.

And Craig Conforti, regional Penn State Extension client relations manager, talked to the students about agriculture in western Pennsylvania.

Hessmann’s three classes of students, from grades nine through 12, are working on the project. In teams of two or three, the students have been developing plans for their own food truck.

Hessmann teaches in a small town, in a rural school district. While riding the school bus, her students pass farms and crop fields every day, but Hessmann was aware that most of the students really didn’t understand the impact that agriculture has on their lives.

Of the food truck owners, each had a different specialty. A gentleman from Syria talked about how he has been able to live the American dream through his food truck as well as the pizza restaurant that he runs when it is too cold to market through his truck.

He “emphasized that you have to work long hours to be successful, but that it will pay off if you are willing to work,” Hessmann said.

The students created menus and picked recipes to try that could be part of their fictional food truck. Each team created a theme, ranging from breakfast foods to tacos, burgers, wraps and pizza.

“We named our truck, ‘That’s a Wrap,’” one student said.

Another team thought they would like to create a snack-food truck that could be used at sporting events.

“We would have finger foods, like wings,” one of the snack-food team members said.

Hessmann arranged for the three classes working on the food truck project to gather to share their experiences.

The project involved not only planning a menu, but also learning how to comparison-shop for groceries.

The teams each had the opportunity to test one of their recipes for their truck. According to the students, some were successful and some — not so much.

“In class, we have moved on to other things, but we will be returning to this soon,” Hessmann said.

The students gained other insights through the lessons.

“I think more about where my food comes from now,” student Delaney Dick said. “We need to be more careful about what we eat.”

“As we finalize the project, the students will be focusing on the agricultural aspects,” Hessmann said.

For example, they will ask, “Where are they getting their products and why? What is the food journey from beginning to their mouth?” she said.

She plans to also talk about the sustainability of food, including the concern about our ability to feed the population as it continues to increase.

According to Hessmann, by 2050, the world’s population is expected to reach 9.1 billion, and the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) predicts that by then, the world would need to produce 70% more food than it does today.

“This is a statistic I have been using with them since I first heard it at the ag educators’ training,” Hessmann said.

As part of her effort to help the students connect what they eat to agriculture, another farmer will join the class to talk about what he does on his farm.

“Matt Fenton, a hog farmer, will be coming in to speak. He has given me some pork products from pigs born on his farm. I plan to get similar products from an area supermarket and have the students compare them,” Hessman said. “It will be interesting to see the students’ reactions.”

Carol Ann Gregg is a freelance writer in western Pennsylvania.