The decline in home economics curricula since the mid-20th century has produced generations of Americans who can’t set a family budget or boil an egg. Family and consumer sciences courses, founded in traditional home economics, prepare students to grow into adulthood as individuals, families, members of the workforce, and public citizens making a positive impact on their communities. Bringing more family and consumer sciences courses back to middle and high schools can help address many of today’s social and economic challenges, including the childhood obesity epidemic.
During a recent interview, Michael Moss, author of Sugar, Salt, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, explains, “Kids in school used to be taught how to shop, how to cook from scratch, how to be in control of their diets. Doesn’t happen anymore…what did happen is we got Betty Crocker, a figment of the imagination of a marketing official at a food company.” While Betty Crocker evokes emotions of better days gone by, “she actually began pushing processed foods, convenience foods, as an alternative to scratch cooking. She…became emblematic of the food industry’s usurpation…of the home economist,” he adds.
Today, microwaves have claimed the title of head chef in our kitchens and we have become disconnected from the concepts and realities of eating and preparing healthy foods. We are advised to eat more fruits and vegetables, but we eat half the recommended amounts. We are told to eat less salt, sugar, and saturated fat, instead we consume nearly a third of our calories from restaurants, where we eat larger portions. We spend less than half the time in food preparation that we did in 1965, and all we have to show for this are some TV dinners and a major obesity crisis.
Two-thirds of this country’s adults and one-third of our children are overweight or obese. Obesity increases the risk of developing diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and a host of other diet-related problems. Studies show that overweight kids and teens already may have risk factors for heart disease and are more likely to become obese adults. While diet is only one factor in the obesity equation, our increased reliance on convenience foods instead of home-cooked meals, suggests the lost art of cooking may have some unintended consequences.
In recent years, thanks in part to First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Initiative, more attention has been paid to food served in schools. And with good reason. Until 2012-13, school meal nutrition standards had not been updated for over 20 years, and standards for snack items had remained largely unchanged for the last 30. Schools have a responsibility to offer and serve healthy foods and set an example of what young people should be consuming at home. Our schools have another responsibility as well: to teach kids the essential life skills they need to succeed and survive in a world filled with unhealthy food environments and persuasive food marketing.
We can no longer focus our attention on reading, writing, and math in silos that do not overlap with life outside of the school building. Recipes can teach fractions, food chemical reactions can help students investigate science, and social studies can be an exploration of food cultures from across the world. Only when we incorporate nutrition, personal finance, and other consumer sciences lessons into the trans-disciplinary themes of math, science, social studies, and language arts, will our young people be prepared to navigate the world around them as independent adults.
Family and consumer sciences programs prepare the adults of the future to function effectively in today’s complex world by teaching higher-order skills like critical thinking, problem solving, and effective communication. We also must recognize that student learning is affected by their health, their nutrition, their family, and their emotional state, all areas addressed by family and consumer sciences curricula.
In order to reverse childhood obesity, we must give America’s young people the knowledge and skills they need to live a healthier life.
It’s time to teach our youth how to take their kitchens back from Betty Crocker.