Earlier this winter I had the chance to give an old friend a call and spend an hour or so catching up.
We were talking about how our lives have changed due to COVID and how we haven’t welcomed a lot of these changes, but some have actually been good.
One thing we both remarked on is how much more we’re cooking at home. That might not be the best news for the food-service sector, but we both admitted it’s been a lot better for our personal bottom line.
He mentioned that he’d managed to pay off all his credit card debt over the past few months and he attributed that to his new relationship with his kitchen.
Where he’d once kept adding to that bill every month, he was now cooking and eating at home; the result had been a credit card bill that fell like a stone.
Neither of us appears to be unique in the way how we’ve fed ourselves has changed. I have always enjoyed cooking, but frequently felt like I didn’t have the time. That’s all changed for me, and many other Canadians.
In the past year, Canadian consumer debt levels have fallen for the first time in over a decade, according to a recent report from the Bloomberg news service. In that report credit bureau Equifax credited “a sharp decline in the use of credit cards.”
That’s all cause for reflection of the true value of these vanishing skills of household management. One can either make or break their personal bottom line based on the cost of feeding themselves. Curious about this, I reached out to our food columnist Getty Stewart, who’s appeared in the Co-operator for many years, for her perspective.
She confirmed that in recent years there’s been a sharp drop in the number of students taking any kind of home economics classes.
She noted that home economics isn’t a compulsory course in Manitoba, and if it is taught, it’s frequently at the middle school level. In a 2012 study, University of Manitoba researcher Joyce Slater found that just 45 per cent of Grade 7 students took home economics. By the time the students reached Grade 12, that participation figure had shrunk to just 7.6 per cent of students.
That’s a shame, because these courses impart some very important knowledge to the kids who are able to take them.
At the entry level, they focus on safe food handling, Canada’s Food Guide, entry-level food skills, food and culture, food and sustainability, food and relationships, and fundamentals of nutrition, Stewart said. At the more senior level budgeting and purchasing figure heavily into the curriculum.
And as Canadians increasingly lose touch with these life skills, it’s unlikely they’ll pick them up outside the classroom. Anecdotally home economics instructors say there was a time when most of the kids attending their classes would come equipped with at least a basic understanding of kitchen skills and the knowledge and awareness of whole food ingredients and how they went together to create meals. These days, the student who has some kitchen experience is the exception, not the norm.
That probably shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone. The proliferation of food-delivery services, ready meal kits, takeout options and frozen meals suggests that most Canadians simply haven’t been spending time in their kitchens.
The Canadian agriculture sector should be contributing to changing that dynamic. While in the end whether Canadians eat out, dine in, order their food or make it themselves might be a zero-sum game in terms of sales, there are dividends to be had from a more knowledgeable and engaged public.
To start with, they will have a greater understanding of exactly where their food comes from. Touting fresh eggs on fast-food sandwiches, for example, might help a bit. But it won’t ever replace the visceral understanding that will come from cracking the egg and cooking it themselves.
And with understanding, just might come a bit of empathy towards the work that farmers across the country do. From there, it’s a question of finding common ground and building responses to shared needs.
For example, an engaged public might be more receptive to ALUS programs that reward farmers for making the right environmental choices and offset any economic losses for doing the right thing on behalf of society as a whole.
That’s not to say it’s an easy thing to accomplish, but it is possible. And having some common ground where you can begin that discussion with is a great first step.
Equipping all Canadians, and especially younger Canadians, with good food skills will help them and us. They’ll eat better and more affordably. Our country would be more economically resilient if it’s not creaking along under a mountain of consumer debt. And the food and agriculture industry would benefit from more knowledgeable voters.
It all can — and should — start in the kitchen.