Ag in the Classroom’s Geography of Thanksgiving Dinner

Don’t miss the opportunity to explore the source of common Thanksgiving foods. Students can also discover what their Thanksgiving dinner might look like if they only had locally grown foods available.

Did You Know?
  • Thanksgiving didn’t become an annual tradition until 200 years after the pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving.
  • Venison was the meat of the first Thanksgiving feast, not turkey.
  • Pumpkin pie and potatoes were not a part of the first Thanksgiving feast.
Background Agricultural Connections

Thanksgiving is a traditional American holiday celebrated in November. The holiday has historical roots to the early pilgrims who settled America. It’s purpose is to celebrate the year’s harvest and give thanks. This lesson provides an opportunity for students to recognize the foods they will likely consume in a traditional Thanksgiving dinner and learn how and where they are likely produced.

As agricultural technology has improved and populations have increased, the agricultural production of our food and fiber has changed to meet the growing and changing demands in our society. Many years ago the majority of the food in our diet was provided by our own gardens and farms or from local farmers. Most consumers played some part in the production of their food. In contrast today, only a very small portion of our population produces the food for our society as a whole. Fewer Americans have first hand experience with and knowledge of farms and the production of their food. 

For some Americans, it is becoming increasingly more important to them to know more about how and where their food was produced. Recent growing demand for locally and regionally produced food has opened up new market opportunities. Many efforts and initiatives have been established to increase this awareness and improve a local farmer’s ability to market their products locally. Locavore is a term used to describe someone who chooses to only consume food that is produced within a certain distance of their home, usually 100 miles. As a whole, consuming locally grown foods is good for local economies. Purchasing local foods can also increase agricultural literacy for consumers and help build a greater awareness for where their food comes from. 

While there are benefits to purchasing local foods, educated consumers should also be aware of the limitations. In general, choosing to eat only locally grown foods will limit the variety of foods and nutrients you will have access to. The climate of a particular region plays a huge role in determining what kind of foods can be grown there. Length of the growing season, soil fertility, access to resources and markets, water, and available open space are also key factors to be taken into consideration. Technology does increase a farmer’s ability to grow crops in less suitable conditions. For example, a greenhouse can be used to extend the growing season to successfully grow produce in a colder climate. However, growing crops in a greenhouse significantly increases the cost of production, which would then be passed on to the consumer. For this and other reasons, farms are typically located in geographic locations that have the proper climate and resources to produce a commodity at the lowest cost. After the commodity is harvested it can be packaged and shipped by truck, plane, or train to locations near and far.

Here are some geographical facts about the production of common Thanksgiving dinner foods and their ingredients:

  • Pumpkin: Illinois is the top pumpkin producing state.Pumpkins are rich in beta-carotene. Pumpkins are grown throughout the country for their ornamental value at halloween. However, commercial pumpkin growers process and can pumpkin for use in pumpkin pie, cookies, and other foods. 95% of the pumpkins processed in the United States are grown in Illinois!Watch Libby’s 100% Pure Pumpkin from Farm to Can to learn how pumpkin is processed.
  • Turkey: Minnesota is the top turkey producing state.3 Other state statistics can be found on the interactive map. For more information about raising turkeys, watch the video clip, Visit the Halvorson Turkey Farm produced by the Minnesota Turkey Grower’s Association.
  • Cranberries: Wisconsin is the leading producer of cranberries, followed by Massachusetts.Cranberries grow on a woody evergreen vine and prefer acidic soil with a pH between 4 and 5.5. Watch The Life Cycle of a Cranberry Harvest to learn how cranberries are harvested and grown. Cranberries can be eaten year round when they are dried. These are known as craisins. The peak season for the consumption of cranberries is during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday season. Cranberries are used in jams, jellies, and other toppings for traditional meals.
  • Wheat: Kansas is the leading producer of wheat in the United States.5 Other state statistics can be found on the interactive map. Flour is used in many types of baking including breads, pies, and pastries. Flour is a processed form of wheat. Watch the Science Channel’s How It’s Made-Flour episode for more information about processing wheat into flour.
  • Eggs: Iowa leads the nation in the production of eggs.6 Other state statistics can be found on the interactive map. Although all species of poultry produce eggs, chicken eggs are the primary source of our food because chickens are most efficient at producing eggs. On average a laying hen produces 6-7 eggs per week. Eggs are used in many recipes. They help bind ingredients together and act as a leavening agent.
  • Milk: California is the leading producer of milk followed by Wisconsin and Idaho.7 Other state statistics can be found on the interactive map. Milk is used in many ways. It can be used for fluid milk consumption, but it is also used to make ice cream, yogurt, sour cream, cheese, and many other dairy products. 
  • Sugar: Sugar can come in many forms including brown sugar, table sugar or powdered sugar. It is used in many foods as a sweetener. The two primary sources of sugar in the United States are sugarcane and sugarbeets. Sugarcane is a tall perennial grass grown in tropical and subtropical climates. Florida is the largest sugarcane producing state.8 The only other states that produce sugar cane are Louisiana, Hawaii, and Texas. Minnesota is the leading state to produce sugarbeets. Other state statistics can be found on the interactive map. Watch the PBS America’s Heartland episode, Sugar Beet Harvest to learn how sugar beets grow and are harvested. The video What is Sugar? will help students recognize how plants make sugar (sucrose) through photosynthesis.
  • Sweet Potatoes: North Carolina leads as the top producer of sweet potatoes.9 Their climate and soil conditions are ideal for sweet potato production. Sweet potatoes are grown across the country, but they are best suited for cultivation in Southern States which have warmer climates and longer frost-free growing seasons relative to other regions of the United States. Watch the America’s Heartland video clip, What’s the Difference Between a Sweet Potato and Yam? 
  • Green Beans: Wisconsin is the leading producer of green beans.10 Green Beans can be purchased fresh, frozen or canned and used as a side dish or baked with other foods.
  • Corn: Iowa is the leading state in the production of corn, followed by Illinois.11 See the interactive map for more state statistics. Many varieties of corn are grown for various purposes. Varieties of field corn are grown for livestock feed and the production of ethanol. The corn we eat is known as sweet corn. The midwestern region of the United States is knows as the “Corn Belt.” These states include Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, Kansas, Indiana, and Illinois. This area is ideal for the growth of corn due to the fertile soil, relatively level land, warm nights, hot days, and well-distributed rainfall.
  • Potatoes: Idaho leads the nation in the production of potatoes.12 Other state statistics can be found on the interactive map. Potatoes originate from the Andes mountains. They thrive in high altitude regions with warm days and cold nights.
  • Carrots: California is the top carrot producing state.13 See the interactive map for other state statistics.

To see more ways to get students excited about Ag in the Classroom Thanksgiving, click here for the complete lesson:

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