Back in the dark ages (my junior high school years in Baltimore), food education was mandatory for every girl. While the boys were hustled off to shop class and the sublime opportunity to saw off a finger or hammer a nail firmly in their thighs, the girls were ushered into a fully decked-out modern kitchen to cook adult things that gave off heavenly aromas. It sure beat my Easy-Bake Oven! We even had our own aprons -- homemade from sewing class (when I accidently sewed my apron strings together my mother secreted it off to the tailor for repair).
While sewing wasn't everyone's cup of tea, and surely wasn't mine, cooking instruction seemed universally beloved. Sure it was an era of rampant sexism, with society assuming women would handle all household chores while the men pounded away in their garage workshops until they were called for dinner. But I remember that the boys were jealous. Who wouldn't be jealous, learning that half of your classmates had just prepared and eaten chicken potpie while you were sanding a birdfeeder? The boys would have to walk by the home economics kitchen after finishing shop class and the aromas drove them crazy -- apple cobbler, chicken soup, biscuits, beef stew, pancakes and more. Thanks to those blatantly sexist cooking classes, I've always enjoyed cooking -- and pitied the poor boys for missing out. And what I learned from school cooking instruction has served me well for decades as a grocery shopper, a cook and an adventurous eater.
So I couldn't help but cheer when I heard that Jamie Oliver's Food Foundation and the organizers behind Food Day (Oct. 24) are collaborating on a new national initiative to put food education in every school, for every child. Why critical life skills like food education and cooking were ever eliminated from many districts is beyond my comprehension. But it's easy to see the damage wrought, beginning with the fact that a third of our kids are either obese or overweight.
Today, few kids can tell a snap pea from a string bean. Sautéing is as foreign to today's teens as a landline. A recent survey in Australia found that 20 percent of kids think pasta comes from animals. 27 percent think yogurt come from plants. Clearly, in today's fast-food, fake-food world, few kids have a clue about where their food comes from or the difference between real food and food that comes in a box. And we wonder why our nation suffers from epidemic rates of obesity and chronic disease.
Even in schools where all children are still lucky enough to get some food education (as my children did in middle school), the lessons were immediately contradicted when they entered the cafeteria for lunch. Offered nachos as an entrée, an array of sugary drinks, and cookies the size of their heads, the students could be forgiven for forgetting the nutrition lessons they had just been taught that advised them to keep junk food intake to a minimum. Whatever happened to practice what you preach?
The lack of food education and cooking instruction leaves our children more vulnerable to the 24/7 onslaught of junk food marketing targeted at kids as young as 2 years old. Not surprisingly, a 2011 study found that while 76 percent of obese teens report that they are trying to lose weight, their actions show that they likely lack the proper information on how to eat healthfully and slim down.
As a mother, a food reformer and a graduate of a public school home economics program that instilled in me a lifelong love of real food, I appeal to the nation's school boards, education departments, and legislators to pass policies that will bring food education back to our schools. The U.S., which ranks last among 20 surveyed nations in terms of time spent in the kitchen cooking, has adopted one of the unhealthiest food lifestyles on the planet. It's time to teach our children in school classrooms about the bounty of nutritious foods - vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains and meats -- that have sustained humanity for a millennium. We must educate them how to shop wisely, read labels and cook simple but delicious meals from scratch. Food literacy lessons should be built into other core subjects like math, science and social studies. Cooking classes should be required for every student. And by all means, we must make sure that what is being served and sold in our school cafeterias and classrooms model the nutrition lessons being taught.
On Food Day this year, I encourage every household to cook a fresh, healthy family meal at home or use the day to teach a child how to cook. I would also urge parents to reach out to local and state policymakers and demand that food education be brought back into America's schools. Continuing to virtually ignore this important topic in our nation's classrooms is done solely at the expense of our children's health and longevity.
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