Nutritional sciences professor Joyce Slater wants educators and parents to better appreciate the value of home economics education
If the student in your family takes home economics when school resumes this fall, they’ll be in a minority.
A new study in Manitoba shows the majority of schools don’t offer it and if they do, few students beyond Grade 9 take it.
“I think there’s an impression that all middle years students (Grades 7 and 8) in Manitoba are receiving home economics education. They’re not. Less than half of them are,” said Joyce Slater, an assistant professor in the human nutritional sciences department at the University of Manitoba.
In a study of enrolment trends between 2000 and 2010, Slater found that only 26 per cent of students in Grades 7 to 12 took home economics. And while the program is mandatory in some middle schools, others don’t offer it at all.
And after Grade 9, when home economics becomes an optional course, enrolment drops sharply. Only 10 per cent of Grade 12 took home economics in 2010, says Slater’s study, entitled, Is Cooking Dead?
Slater also interviewed 13 teachers and superintendents in rural and northern Manitoba, as well as Winnipeg. She was told home economics tends to be an “undervalued” and “lower-level skill” subject, with many parents and even other teachers viewing it as far less important than math and science.
“There’s pressure from parents and sometimes educators to encourage students to go into what’s perceived to be more of the higher career path choice courses,” Slater said.
“There’s this view: ‘You don’t need this other stuff.’”
Home economics must also compete with a greatly expanded number of optional courses nowadays, there’s a shortage of qualified teachers, and the curriculum in Manitoba is also badly out of date.
“The curriculum is almost 30 years old,” said Slater. “It’s really old. It’s probably one of, if not the oldest, in terms of not being renewed.”
Teachers say the curriculum needs revising to reflect changes in nutrition knowledge, societal trends, and a more diverse student population.
Paradoxically, the other significant challenge is that an increasing number of children lack even a rudimentary understanding of how a kitchen operates. Many students don’t know how to read a recipe, and some had never handled a kitchen knife or turned on an oven. Many don’t have a basic understanding of food or nutrition, let alone food preparation or proper hygiene and safety in the kitchen.
“There’s some serious issues out there with a deskilled generation,” said Slater. “Actually, I think there is a couple of deskilled generations out there.”
Other concerns raised by teachers include how the school food environment can contradict or undermine what they’re trying to teach about healthy eating. School celebrations often feature high-sugar baked goods, salty snacks, soft drinks and fast food. As well, ‘junk’ food is often used as a reward in schools.
Her study has given her a new view of the role of home economics education, said Slater.
“I find I’ve changed my language when I talk about this now,” she said.
“I’m not talking about basic skills anymore. It’s about fundamental knowledge and competencies. Examples would be knowing how much food you need to eat, and having a basic understanding of what you’re eating, knowing how to grocery shop, and how to read a food label.”
Her main concern is that the opportunity to learn these valuable life skills is diminishing simultaneously in schools and homes.
With childhood obesity at an all-time high, and the incidence of nutrition-related chronic diseases also rising, kids need to become food literate, she said.
“We need to give people fundamental knowledge and skill sets so that they can go out and engage out there in the food environment, which is a really complicated food environment,” she said.
“It’s not just about cooking. It’s about knowing how to survive in the current foodscape.”
Slater said she hopes her study, the first of its kind in Canada, will prompt educators to rethink their view of home economics courses.
“Educational authorities are responding to different things and this has become marginalized,” she said. “But I think we’re coming around to where people are seeing that this is not what people thought it was, and has potential to become something really important.”