Imagine if schools taught kids how to shop for groceries and cook healthy, delicious meals. Considering that almost a third of Americans under age 19 are now overweight or obese, accustomed to a diet of cheap, processed foods, adding an updated version of old-fashioned “home economics” to the education system could be a smart idea. Cooking used to be basic knowledge, passed on from one’s parents, but now it’s rare to find a young person who knows how to wield a chef’s knife and handle ingredients with creativity and confidence. A generation of kids has grown up with two working parents, or a single parent, who were too busy to prepare healthy, homemade food. The unfortunate result is kids who don’t understand good nutrition, aren’t self-sufficient, and don’t know to grocery shop.
In her fascinating article “Bring back home ec!”, Ruth Graham traces the trajectory of home ec classes throughout the 20th century. They have gone from being “rooted in progressive and even feminist thinking” (ca. 1899) to being “combat troops against malnutrition” during the Depression. In the 1950s, teachers became salespeople for convenience foods. By the 1960s-70s, the crucial knowledge taught in home ec had become conventional knowledge and no longer seemed necessary. People also didn’t like thinking that home ec simply prepared young women for marriage, which is understandable.
Graham thinks that a revitalization of home ec would fit in nicely with the current shift toward teaching kids about conscientious eating and combating obesity. (Think Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, and Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign.) Michael Moss, author of “Salt, Sugar, Fat,” believes we are “at this tipping point where more and more people are caring about what they put in their bodies.” So what would a revitalized home economics class look like? Alice Lichtenstein, professor of nutrition science and policy at Tufts, describes the following ideal curriculum:
“[It would include] basic cooking techniques; caloric requirements; sources of food, from farm to table; budget principles; food safety; nutrient information, where to find it and how to use it; and effects of food on well-being and risk for chronic disease.”
Even a field trip to the grocery store would be very helpful to teach kids how to read the fine print and to manage a budget.
The thought of modernizing home ec excites me because it could go in so many interesting directions. It’s a wonderful opportunity to teach kids about sustainable eating and sourcing local ingredients; frugality and how to stretch food further; the ethics of industrial agriculture vs. small-scale farming; and how to cook foods from different cultures. This is the type of practical course that would stick with kids and have a real impact on their lives. So, by all means, let’s bring back home ec.