Tag Archives: home economics

The answer to the nutritional health crisis is not a repentant Paula Deen

The Party’s over, America. Get ready to be told to eat your spinach.

After suffering Jamie Oliver’s patronizing missionary swing through the American nutritional landscape (An Englishman is telling America how to eat? They eat canned spaghetti on toast, for the love of Gawd), we are about to be treated to a much less entertaining Paula Deen proselytizing healthy nutrition. In case you’ve just come out of hibernation, Deen has outed her type 2 diabetes and with the speed of a congressman caught in a threesome with a teenager and a high priced hooker come to Jesus with a full public mea culpa and a promise to do only good with a healthy food show in future. Her conversion outraged Tony Bourdain and saddened those of us whose pleasure was watching her stuff a week’s worth of fat, sugar and salt into a single appetizer serving without apologies.

Deen’s retreat from salt, sugar and trans fats is our loss – devil-may-care-and-don’t-spare-the- lard is at the very least highly entertaining, and whether or not her new focus on what’s good for us is well intended or just self serving, like Oliver’s warnings, Michelle Obama’s charming cajoling, the Center for Science for the  Public Interest’s incessant and self-serving nagging and all of the nation’s food political media sensationalism combined, it is not going have any substantial impact on the country’s obesity statistics or diabetes crisis. You  have to get to the root of the problem, which is us, to effect real improvement. And that is what? Are we simply culinary idiots?

Granted, American eaters are occasionally stupid, as evidenced by the increasing number of three hundred pounders zipping around on disability and Medicare paid My Little Buddy Scooters years after their doctors warned them, that their diet would take out their knees and hips. Our fellow eaters know that McDonald’s 1500 calorie burgers and Starbuck’s 500 calorie frozen coffees are going to make them fat, immobile and sooner dead – but neither Starbuck’s nor Domino’s is feeling the pinch of their logical conclusions. Apparently cause and effect thinking  (Big gulps yield inability to support your own mass) is not our strong point, but you can’t hold stupidity alone responsible for the current national nutritional health crisis.

So blame it on the manufacturers, who are putting cheaper corn syrup sweetener in things you wouldn’t consider dessert and marketing a bucket of calorie packed fried chicken as a healthy family meal. So ban toys in Happy meals or pass a soda tax,  Go to battle with the First Amendment and try to stop their advertising. Good luck.

The food industry is simply doing what businesses do and Paula Dean is about to do: Playing to their audiences.  They sell what  consumers demand. You can of course,  like Paul Kenny accuse food manufacturers of creating an addiction and attempt to resolve the problem with a war on Lardo or sugar, which promises the same success as the government’s war on drugs. Or we can fix it, at least in the long term.

If we as a nation want to solve out diabetes and obesity crisis, which means addressing what it costs us in health care and welfare programs, we can’t just scoff at “stupid” and blame the providers of food, Nutritional outrage and good intentions are ineffective. We need to look beyond the buzz words and the facile finger pointing of the media and identify the underlying causes of the country’s poor eating habits. Junk food’s ubiquitous availability (evil producers are selling it) and advertising bombardment are results, not causes. If our nation’s eaters were dying to have spinach snacks, Kraft would be producing them and running million dollar ad campaigns at the Super Bowl.

Is junk food addictive? Perhaps, but “habit forming” is perhaps a better description (things you like produce serotonin, whether it’s running or eating salt water toffee) and as tidy as the accusation that big agriculture and McDonald’s are pushing addictive products, It’s more probable that we, once we reach our mid-twenties, have formed habits that we are not  likely to break until we get our own diabetes diagnosis. The fact that we will change our habits then shows that we are not that stupid.

What we are, as a nation,  however, is ignorant, and there’s an app for that.

The real underlying problem is lack on knowledge aboout and understanding of the simplest facts about food – culinary and nutritional illiteracy. Americans for the most part know pitifully little about what they eat. They don’t know how to buy it. They don’t know how to cook it, and according to the statistics on food poisonings, they haven’t got a clue on  how to keep it. I suspect that most Americans don’t know what really good food tastes like. The continued existence of Velveta is proof of that.  We build our life long pitiful eating habits as children because nobody tells us any better. This wasn’t always the case..

How’d that happen? Two generations ago your grandmother, who may have been rolly polly and not a great cook, was serving your mother a balanced meal and sending her to school with something more or less appropriate, including celery sticks with peanut butter, a tuna fish sandwich or an apple. If you are under 40, your own mother probably didn’t do that (if she did,  you are probably not obese). Nobody’s mother did. Blame it on feminism.

Our common food culture is in great  part collateral damage of the women’s liberation movement. James Beard as the spokesman for the Jolly Green Giant and Westinghouse with the first dishwashers led the way to the sea change in our eating conventions, creating conveniences which permitted Mad Men’s wives to toss away their aprons and enter the work force, but Gloria Steinem’s followers did in America’s healthy relationship with food by stripping Home Ec from our high schools.

Bless’em for that. Home Ec, frequently boring and generally run by bossy and intolerably opinionated teachers, was obligatory for girls, who usually gave up Geometry or beginning algebra in order to graduate from junior high school. Eliminating first the requirement and then the class entirely put girls on equal educational footing with boys and provided women the academic foundations to transcend the nurse, teacher, stewardess and teacher futures available to them.

Eliminating home economics also saved the schools a lot of money. Lab courses are enormously expensive to run, and insurance was just beginning its parabolic climb to astronomically expensive,  when the courses disappeared, and the cost of insurance for classes using knives and hot liquids would have destroyed school budgets.

Education equality with men also means that women know as much as their male classmates about food: Squat, a knowledge void passed on to their children. The problem was compounded by the time limitations set by women’s initial liberty to participate in the work force, reducing the time spent providing cooking experiences and instruction to their children.  Balanced sit down meals and brown bags began to disappear in the seventies, creating a population that not only did not know how to cook or understand nutritional basics, but doesn’t know what good food can and should taste like.

If you want to change America’s eating habits, you have to educate our children: Return Home Economics classes to the schools. Make them obligatory for all students in their food formative years – that would be about the seventh grade. Make them accessible and interesting and not preachy. Keep it simple and don’t insist on organic or sustainable product. Teach your children how to make basic foods – forget Alice Waters and the ideologues and stick with an American menu adolescents will like. Just do the basics. Explain vitamins and calories, flavors and technique.

Other courses won’t lose ground. Good food preparation involves math and science. It’s fascinating stuff. Show kids who have had nothing but Tortino Pizza Rolls and Pop tarts why bread has holes in  it and how absolutely awesome a little orange and cheese can taste, how much fun watching a sauce firm up can be. Make jam. Fry eggs, mix salad dressing (colloidal suspensions), make lemonade from fruit.  Cook up a BLT or a croque monsieur. Mash potatoes. Explain a food budget and make a banana smoothie. Explain why steel needs to be sharpened and milk is homogenized. Let them cook bugs and make a pie or cookies without a mix. .

Added bonus: The Trojan Horse effect. Children, being the insufferable know-it-alls they are, will carry their nutritional literacy beyond the classroom. Parents are going to get an earful when they put another batch of Kraft Mac ‘N Cheese on the table. That’s good. Some will want to cook at home, occasionally in self defense. (This was not the case with the traditional course, as the at least one person in the home could usually prepare a meal.)

Still Better: In only eight or so years the first batch of nutritionally literate adults will be opinion makers and trend setters, and their demands will be met. The fast and convenience food providers are using mass media to educate. So, Educate Back. The schools have them as a captive audience, face to face for at least an hour three times a week. Sarah Lee would die for that exposure. Why aren’t we using it.

What speaks against return Home Economy to the schools:

The Money Problem.

Food classes aren’t expensive. They are exorbitant.  They require equipment, product, and insurance. But then good education does cost something, and it is our general mandate, all of ours, to educate our children for the important things in life. We are failing here. Just as important is what an educated eating public  will save. Congress is belly aching about the cost of Medicare. What if the next generation of adults didn’t need Scooter Buddies to haul their four hundred pound carcasses around the sidewalks? What if they didn’t need insulin and knee replacements?  Would that offset the cost of teaching the most basic component of our lives to people who  need the education? You betcha. After all, we have sex education, don’t we?

Oxen being gored: Whose? Who knows, but any major change disadvantages someone who makes money from the status quo. 

And there are the unions.  An attempt I once participated in to set up a good culinary program at John O’Connell high school ran aground at the shoals of the hairnet lady’s union. The plan was to let the students cook lunch twice a week. The hairnet ladies said no, and the class was re-conceived as a special needs solution. We need to get our priorities straighter, if we want to resolve really large problems.

Big Food Industry: While Big Food can’t be held as the sole culprit in the American nutritional crisis, they enjoy great profits from it, which they won’t give up gladly. An early attempt by Slow food San Francisco to introduce apples as snacks twice monthly was foiled by the contracted suppliers of potato chips and Snickers bars. Big Food lobbies, and they are not going to lie back and allow the educational system to market carrots as snacks to their prime audience. They had, furthermore, effectively undermined Home Economics classes before they were dropped with donations of their products (Mac ‘n Cheese, mixes, Jello) to Home Ec programs,

You can do something. Take this immodest proposal to heart, then take it to your congress person, then take it to your school board. Michelle Obama – stop finger wagging and start lobbying for hands on food education. Just the basics. It will work.

 

 

 

 

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