While consumers have become increasingly interested in where the food they eat comes from, tracing that path can be daunting. "Food: The Nature of Eating," at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, aims to help.
"There are some elements of food that we instinctively understand, and this exhibit fills in the blanks," said Steve Sullivan, the museum's senior curator of urban ecology.
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"Food: The Nature of Eating"Where: Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, 2430 N. Cannon Drive, Chicago, (773) 755-5100; naturemuseum.org
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday through Sept. 8
Admission:$9; $6 for kids ages 3-12; $7 for seniors and students; free Thursdays
Designed by the Nature Museum, the exhibit, which runs through Sept. 8, opens with a hallway covered in floor-to-ceiling video screens showing the tall prairie grasses that once covered Illinois, giving it the name the Prairie State. The corridor leads to a display of a John Deere tractor, the technological innovation that made it possible to break through land once considered infertile and turn the Midwest into the breadbasket of America.
Visitors can try pushing a plow to see how hard farm work was in the 1800s, while viewing a timeline that tracks other technological innovations like tractors and chemical fertilizer that have dramatically increased the amount of grain that can be harvested on a plot of land.
Nearby displays showcase items from the museum's permanent collection including a bison, prairie chicken, the now extinct Eskimo curley and plants that were once common on the Illinois prairie.
"We changed the prairie so quickly that in some ways we don't know what it was," Sullivan said. "Samples like these are physical snapshots in time. They cannot be reproduced."
Juxtaposing what the prairie used to be with the farms of today shows the trade-offs inherent in technology.
Kids can enjoy lighting up parts of a model of a family farm, while older visitors take in information about how agriculture has become dominated by commercial farms focused on just one cash crop like soy or corn.
A short video shows how food is modified for shipping, meaning consumers can have tomatoes year-round, but they might not taste as good.
A map shows just how long food takes to get to stores including surprises like Alaskan salmon detouring to China to be filleted before heading back to the United States.
While there's plenty of information that older visitors can appreciate, a variety of interactive displays help get kids thinking about food, too.
There's a lunch line showing the difference between highly processed and more nutritious school meals, a table where kids can play customer and server with plastic dishes and food and an area that's already proven extremely popular where they can use dry erase markers to draw their favorite foods on plates.
One of the goals of the exhibit is to get people to reduce the waste associated with food and become more in touch with what they consume. That could involve having a garden on a patio, keeping chickens or beehives in your backyard, seeking out locally grown produce or just reducing the amount of meat you eat.
Stories from local farmers, chefs and entrepreneurs interspersed throughout the exhibit provide inspiration.
"We need to change the way we consume our products," Sullivan said. "An exhibit like this is going to empower you to change the way you interact with the natural world."