Learning to feed ourselves

Chances are that unless you are at least 40, “Home Economics” class didn’t even exist when you were in school, but could it make a comeback?

In a recent New York Times op-ed, Helen Zoe Veit, a history professor at Michigan State University, argued that we should bring Home Ec back to the schools as a weapon in the fight against obesity and chronic disease. She believes that teaching children to cook, and giving them information about nutrition, can empower them to take control of the food they eat.

As someone who loved Home Ec (my siblings called me “Suzy Homemaker”), I agree wholeheartedly. Here are the lessons I learned in home ec that I still use on a regular basis:

  • How to operate kitchen appliances, large and small
  • How to read a recipe
  • The proper way to measure ingredients (level!)
  • How to sew on a button

Those might sound like simple things, but I know many people who cannot do them, or more importantly, think they can’t. The most lasting lesson I learned was that I could do those things and do them competently.

Somewhere along the way, as our focus turned outside our homes, and our society became more technology-driven, we forgot how to take care of ourselves. These days, we abdicate feeding ourselves to restaurants, fast food chains and supermarket kitchens; we give our buttons to the tailor or dry cleaner to sew; and we often hire others to clean our houses, mow our lawns and rake our leaves. Would we be healthier if we took some of that back?

Just in the area of how we eat, here are some sobering facts:

  • Fifty percent of our meals were eaten away from home in 2010.
  • We consume 50% more calories, fat and sodium when we eat out.
  • The daily calorie intake of children is significantly affected by where they eat, and where their food comes from. The percent of calories from fast food is now greater for them than the percent of calories they get from school foods.
  • When families eat together, they eat more fruits and vegetables, fewer fried foods, and less soda. (For tips on making family dinners easier, see WebMD.)
  • Kids who have regular meals with their parents tend to do better in every area of wellness – they get better grades, have healthier relationships, don’t get into trouble as much, and engage less often in risky behaviors such as drinking and smoking.

Some middle schools and high schools do still teach cooking. In my local middle school, there are courses in “Family & Consumer Science” and “Foods & Nutrition”. The high school offers “Food Trends & Technology”. The problem is that these courses are electives, and with the pressure for academic achievement and improved test scores, I don’t think it’s very likely that they are going to become mandatory courses any time soon.

The time and place to start is elementary school, and there seems to be some momentum there:

  •  School gardens are popping up in lots of districts, with California seeming to lead the way (for example, Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard project).
  • Grants for school gardens are available from the Whole Kids charitable foundation.
  • The Slow Food in Schools Project offers many examples on their website of how to integrate food into the curriculum.

Perhaps the most visible advocate for better food and healthier kids is Jamie Oliver. He has brought together a number of organizations for his Food Revolution campaign. He has said, “The only message I keep hearing is that you believe your kids need better food, and that you want help to keep cooking skills alive.”

Another way of putting it: “Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime.”

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