During my junior high school years in Baltimore, food education was mandatory for every girl. While the boys hustled off to shop class, the girls entered a fully decked out modern kitchen to cook adult things that gave off heavenly aromas. We even had our own aprons, homemade from sewing class.
While sewing wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, cooking instruction seemed universally beloved. It was an era of rampant sexism–women were expected to handle all household chores while 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, after learning that half of your classmates had just prepared and eaten chicken potpie while you were sanding a birdfeeder? Thanks to those blatantly sexist cooking classes, I’ve always enjoyed cooking–and pitied those who missed out. 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 are collaborating on a new national initiative to put food education in every school, for every child. It’s easy to see the damage wrought on our children from a lack of education about food and cooking, with a third of our kids currently considered either obese or overweight.
Today, few kids can tell a snap pea from a string bean. Sautéeing is as foreign to today’s teens as a landline. Earlier this year, a survey in Australia found that 20 percent of kids think pasta comes from animals and 27 percent think yogurt come from plants. Clearly, in the world of fast food and fake food, few kids have a clue about where their food comes from or the difference between real food and food that comes in a box.
Even in schools where all children are still lucky enough to get some food education, the lessons are often immediately contradicted when they enter the cafeteria for lunch. When students are offered an array of sugary drinks, cookies the size of their heads, and nachos as a main meal, it’s all too easy to forget the nutrition lessons they had just been taught that advise keeping 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 two 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 (October 24), 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 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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Photo: Kids cooking by Shutterstock