By Claud Mann
In 2013 the Orfalea Foundation hosted its first Food Sovereignty Week, a series of free and low cost public events focused on our current food system, its impact on the health of the nation, and how individual food choices can influence public policy and ultimately drive change. Orfalea’s School Food Initiative Director, Kathleen de Chadenedes, summed it up when speaking to a group of high school students who had come to hear author and food activist Jan Poppendieck. One student asked what food sovereignty really meant. Kathleen replied that it boils down to one thing: who decides what you eat? She added, “and if you never learn how to cook, someone else will decide for you –most likely a corporation.”
How does a person learn to cook? In years past, watching a parent or grandparent prepare the family meal was the common method by which life skills such as cooking were passed down from one generation to the next. For a long time, high school Home-Economics classes played an important role as well. I was fortunate to be among the last group to sneak in under the wire before such classes ceased to exist. Since Home-Ec vanished around the same time as bell-bottoms, revealing that I attended the class means that I’m well past fifty. (The fact that I was a male who chose to take Home-Ec means that I didn’t have a lot of dates – the dates came years later when men who cooked were suddenly considered attractive.)
Social life not withstanding, Home-Ec made a lasting impact. Even after attending a professional culinary academy, it is the advice of my 8th grade Home-Ec instructor, Mrs. Norwood, that first springs to mind when separating egg whites: “Be fastidious, Mr. Mann, even one iota of yolk can keep the whites from peaking.” It is odd which morsels of knowledge one retains decades after the fact. I can recall in detail desperate hours spent grappling with obscure mathematical concepts, but not the concepts themselves. Having little or no need to use these tools in my daily life, they have faded from disuse; I can say with near certainty that never in 40 years have I needed the theorem for the sum of two squares. (Knowing how to bake some lemon squares – well, that’s another thing.)
For me, the lasting value in Home-Ec was not in learning recipes. It was gaining a comfortable familiarity with basic ingredients and methods, and most notably, losing the very natural but irrational fear of failure. In the modern home kitchen, absolute losses are a rarity. More often than not, a home-cooked meal that doesn’t quite hit the mark is still superior to anything found in a can, box or drive-thru.
Fortunately, both the scientific community and popular culture appear to have begun to rediscover the value of Home-Ec instruction. In the article “Bring Back Home Economics Education,” The Journal of the American Medical Association writes, “…The obesity-hunger paradox arises not only from lack of nutritious, affordable alternatives to fast food, but also from lack of knowledge of how to prepare nutritious food at home with inexpensive basic ingredients… a renovated home economics curriculum could equip young adults with the skills essential to lead long and healthy lives and reverse the trends of obesity and diet related diseases…”
One only need log on to Jamie Oliver’s website, (jamieshomecookingskills.com) to see that the celebrity chef’s central efforts now revolve around promoting basic cooking skills both in and out of school. An early proponent of food literacy and school food reform, Chef Olivers’ home page states: “Cooking is, without a doubt, one of the most important skills a person can ever learn and share. Once someone has that knowledge, that’s it – they’re set for life.” Being set for life is where the “Ec” part of Home-Ec really comes into play. Sky-high tuition and stagnant wages mean that college-bound high school students, and those moving directly into the work force, will confront enormous economic challenges. Understanding food budgeting, proper dietary choices and meal planning may well make the difference between struggling and thriving for many of these young people. And staying healthy is also a heck of a lot cheaper than the alternative.
Former Dinner and a Movie Chef/Host Claud Mann is an Instructor with the Orfalea Foundation School Food Initiative.