Eat, Drink and Be Healthy

Home ec's modern makeover

By Jennifer LaRue Huget
Thursday, June 3, 2010

Around 1974, I enrolled in home economics and concocted a homemade version of Bisquick, baked a red velvet cake and created no-bake chocolate-oatmeal cookies. (I also sewed a polka-dot smock, but that's another story.)

I'm not sure what the aim was. By the mid-'70s, we were past grooming girls to be good housewives, right? And I can't say it steered me in a healthful direction or taught me how to intelligently navigate the universe of food.

Since my long-ago smock-sewing days, home ec class has changed. For one thing, it's not called home ec anymore. It's not always a class. And its goal is most assuredly not to breed better housewives.

School systems across the country now offer what's called family and consumer sciences, a set of courses, usually electives, that include basic cooking skills. While still emphasizing hands-on activities, these classes have a more academic bent, such as keeping a food diary and using it to gauge how healthful a student's diet is. And students taking FACS learn nutrition information to help them make healthful food choices and maintain a balanced diet throughout their lives.

In a May 2 editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Alice Lichtenstein, a nutritional biochemist at Tufts University, and David Ludwig, a physician at Children's Hospital Boston, argued that mandatory home ec should be incorporated into the school day as a means of combating obesity. Teaching all kids to eat better and to distinguish between foods that will support their good health and those that won't, the authors suggest, would foster a new generation of healthful eaters who might then go on to teach their own children to make sound food choices.

Lichtenstein says there should be a mandatory K-12 program that would rely on technology (for virtual cooking lessons, perhaps) and creative curriculum planning to weave the lessons of nutrition into math and other subjects. She acknowledges that implementing such a program nationwide will take time, money and effort.

For now, though, these classes aren't available to all. D.C. public schools don't offer anything but a high school culinary arts program that includes nutrition instruction. Montgomery and Prince George's County public schools offer some classes in middle and high schools, but they are not mandatory.

Fairfax County is a different story. There, 85 teachers are leading consumer science classes for 15,000 middle and high school students, according to Sandy Jones, the county's FACS coordinator. Life-planning class includes a section on "examining components of individual and family wellness," Jones says, including skills such as reading food labels. The fitness-and-foods class teaches about key nutrients, how to use the USDA's MyPyramid guide to healthful eating, and how to alter a recipe to make it more healthful.

"The aim is to help a student understand that to have a wonderful, happy life, there are choices to be made," Jones says. The FACS classes teach students to "work out what are healthy choices all through their lifestyle so they can function at their best level all across their life span."

That doesn't mean insisting kids stick to making salads and fruit smoothies. Juli Stotz, a teacher at Hayfield Secondary School in Fairfax County, teaches the virtues of healthful fats, buying locally produced food, cooking from scratch, watching out for excess salt and sugar, and monitoring portion size. But her students also learn to cook fettuccini alfredo, apple crisp with creme anglaise, chicken enchiladas and fried rice.

"Not everything we cook is really healthy" or low-calorie, she admits, but the ingredients they're made from are as healthful as possible. "You have to be somewhat flexible" to keep students engaged, Stotz says.

Karen Bryant and Lori Molnar, teachers at Rachel Carson Middle School in Herndon, know flexibility. They teamed up in 2007 to create a Wellness for Life class to supplement the school's family and consumer sciences courses. First offered in the 2008-09 school year, the class taught physical, social and mental wellness to seventh- and eighth-graders. The teachers added a food-and-fitness after-school program that year, too; participants learned about the "energy balance" -- the need to match calories consumed with calories burned -- by taking part in a fun fitness activity and then making a healthful snack, such as a yogurt parfait.

Wellness for Life was eliminated from the curriculum the following year for budget reasons. But that didn't stop Bryant and Molnar. They devised an "on the road" version of the program and now deliver it through skits in the cafeteria and appearances on the school TV station. They found out recently that their program will return for the coming school year.

That's a good thing, according to ninth-grader Josh Knickerbocker, 15, who has taken the class. Wellness for Life, he says, "showed me how important my health is and how much it can contribute to my life if I keep it good." So much so that he plans to do some of his own cooking this summer, using the omelet and pizza recipes he learned.

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