What Happened to Home-Ec?

Schoolhouse IllustrationOur dog goes nuts for kids. Babies in strollers, toddlers with mom, awkward teenagers — they’re all Auggie’s best friend. For a real treat, some mornings I take him on the “school tour” in our neighborhood. We pass 1 middle school, 3 pre-schools, 1 elementary school, and a community college. We also encounter numerous treat-bearing crossing guards. Auggie gets more pets and attention in that 45 minute walk than your average mutt does in a week.

This morning we passed several groups of middle-schoolers ambling towards class. And most of them were still working on ‘breakfast‘. (You know, the most important meal of the day.) Hot cheetos. Caramel popcorn. Jolt, Vault, Monster. (Engery drinks, in case you weren’t sure.) Chicken nuggets. I was so appalled I think I would have been relieved to see some breakfast junk food of yesteryear. Think Pop tarts, Egg McMuffins, and breakfast sausage Hot-Pockets.

In reality, I guess I wasn’t too shocked. In fact, it was watching too much consumption of hot-cheetos before 9am that propelled me into the kids’ cooking and nutrition business anyhow. As a middle school teacher, I was all too accustomed to the sugar highs and lows these junks foods caused, especially during first and second period. The implications for students who start their day with a healthy breakfast is astounding, from test scores to type 2 diabetes to behavioral and attention disorders. And by now, it seems teachers, nutritionists, doctors**, and (some) parents all know this…. so who’s telling the kids???

The lack of health-education (it’s not just sex-ed) and life-skills classes in our schools is devastating, and is no doubt one of the many factors contributing to our nation’s growing obesity rate. When I was a kid, I was taught the difference between Fruit Loops and fruit salad. Sure, I loved my annual birthday box of Fruit Loops. But I understood why I ate fruit salad the rest of the year. Kids today are simply not receiving the requisite nutrition and culinary education to make good choices about what they eat. Not only are schools not teaching it, they’re not serving it either. Nearly 80% of US school cafeterias do not meet the USDA nutritional guidelines for school lunch (how can they when they get just $1.00/child?), and many offer items from Taco Bell and Pizza Hut. Kids aren’t dumb; they probably know that a Double Whopper isn’t the best thing for them. But I don’t think they realize the lifelong ramifications of the food choices they make.

With a quick search on google for “home economics in schools today”, I could hardly find an article or website that discussed cooking and health education in American schools. (The most relevant was from 2001.) Of course, there are some exemplar school district programs, like Alice Water’s-influenced Edible Schoolyard in Berkley. And there is excellent curricula for interested teachers, such as Dr. Antonia Demas’ Food Is Elementary. But we’ve yet to come close to anything as radical as UK’s recent mandate which requires secondary schools to teach health education and cookery to all the country’s children.

In previous political campaigns, I’ve gotten pretty fired-up when the candidates debate education reform. During Wednesday’s final debate, it got barely a sound bite as the last topic posed by Bob Schieffer. And you can be sure that building kitchen classrooms, planting school gardens, improving the nutritional quality of cafeteria food, and home-economics classes weren’t in either of the candidates’ responses.

**In fact, only 40% of medical schools require doctors to take a nutrition course, and 6 of the top 16 US hospitals have fast food in the cafeteria.

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