One of my favorite bloggers, Scattered Mom of Notes from the Cookie Jar and Chasing Tomatoes, has a very cool feature going on that I’m planning to participate in — starting today. She’s a fellow Jamie Oliver fan (though, unlike lowly little ol’ me, she’s actually received Jamie’s personal stamp of approval for her efforts), and during his last U.S. “Food Revolution” foray — the infamous Huntington, W. VA stint — she ran a weekly blog theme called Food Revolution Fridays. Now that Jamie’s in L.A. (meeting with less-than-stellar results, sadly), Scattered Mom is reprising the weekly event. The idea is that, every Friday for as long as Jamie’s trying to revolutionize L.A., bloggers who are interested in participating will write something about healthy food in schools, or creating a healthier overall food culture, or will post a healthy family recipe, or…you get the idea.
Anyway, I feel a bit like this whole blog is a big Food Revolution Fridays post, but I’m going to try to be intentional about it from here on out, posting on Fridays in particular about things that I think relate to Jamie Oliver’s efforts. Starting today. With a quote from reader Jen: “It is possible to rise above the deep fry.”
When I asked you all, the other day, to contribute to a discussion about American food culture to help clarify things for a friend in the Netherlands, I never expected the fervor that was about to hit the comments board. It’s been an indescribable pleasure to read and respond to your thoughtful comments and links. It would take me at least a dozen posts to do justice to the information and sentiments that were contained in your responses, but to sum it all up, apparently It’s Not Just Me.
You all agreed on one thing, at least: that American food culture is failing our kids. And what really frightened me, in a way (though I suspected as much) was that none of you cited the same reasons for the decline in our eating habits. There were a few things that really stuck with me, though, and I’m pondering them today in the context of this revolution.
One is the idea, posed by reader James, that what used to be the province of our education system — teaching basic life skills, such as in the old-school home ec class — is now no longer, and perhaps parents at large haven’t moved to fill that gap. I should mention that James and I are actually childhood friends, so when we exchanged comments about the home ec classes in middle school, we were speaking from shared experience. At our large public school, we were required to spend a semester of 7th grade and a semester of 8th grade taking Home Economics. It may sound unliberated; it may sound quaintly out-of-date; but as James and I both pointed out, darned if we and our classmates didn’t learn some useful stuff. We had to learn to cook at least a few basic things, and how to sew on a button, and some other general “domestic” skills. As I wrote on the comments board, I don’t recall the whole experience in detail, but I know that because of Home Ec, I could make chicken stir-fry, twice-baked potatoes, and morning glory muffins by the age of 13. Even if my parents hadn’t been the kind of people who expected us to learn how to prepare basic foods for ourselves, I would still have gained some of that knowledge from school.
These days, I have no idea whether or not Home Ec is still a requirement at our old school, but I do know that it’s not included in the basic curriculum at most of the middle and high schools I’ve been to recently. Sure, some of the high schools have a Culinary Arts program that kids can opt into, but “opt” is the key word here — nobody’s actually sitting in the curriculum planning meetings and saying “You know what? It is as necessary to our students to learn how to purchase and prepare healthy foods as it is for them to learn about the War of 1812.” (And though I’m a total geek, love learning, and value knowledge of all kinds, I’ll actually go out on a limb here and say that I think most kids will get more lifelong value out of the cooking classes than the War of 1812 quiz.) Without getting super-political and into the educational policy fray, I’ll just say this: James made the point that as subject areas like music and art have been slowly squeezed out of many schools to make room for more and more academics, it’s likely that something as generally maligned as Home Economics went to the chopping block first. Makes sense to me.
But that means that if we want our 13-year-olds to be able to make a stir-fry or a batch of muffins (or even, as my older sister’s class did, a spinach lasagna!), we have to TEACH THEM OURSELVES. And while parents are probably (I hope) aware that their kids are not taking Home Ec at school, that doesn’t necessarily translate to them thinking that it’s necessary to fill that gap in another way. There’s a unique thing going on in the American consciousness, I’m noticing, whereby many parents assume that Whatever Is Going On In the Schools Is the Right Answer. If the schools say that the kids don’t need to learn to cook, then parents logically assume that learning to cook is not a necessary part of growing up. If the schools serve up junk at lunchtime, then parents assume that the meal on offer is appropriate food for growing kids. Too many people are not thinking critically anymore, nor are they thinking for themselves (this appears to be a theme of mine this week).
Which leads me back to Jen’s comment. Jen shared that she’s had to make many conscious decisions, as an adult, to buck the food trends of many of her family and friends. In a world of processing, she’s had to seek natural choices and stay strong in her resolve, just as so many of us are trying to do. But “it is possible to rise above the deep fry,” she wrote, and I wholeheartedly agree with her. The issue is not whether we can rise above the deep fry; as I think about the whole concept of educational and parental responsibility, I’m beginning to wonder if the real issue is whether or not we even WANT to. Surely Jamie Oliver’s recent experiences in Los Angeles underscore the fact that despite mounting evidence to the contrary, there are still a whole lot of people out there who appear to want to believe that the current nutritional status quo is just fine.
I’m not one of them; I suspect that, if you’re reading this, neither are you. But if we want to see change, real and substantial, we have to find a way to help everyone who has any influence in the life of a child — parents, extended family members, educators, and community members — understand that this is part of their responsibility. And that it’s possible to make a difference with just a few simple actions. A few more family meals every week. A few minutes spent reading the labels at the store. One less packaged food per day; one more fresh vegetable per day. One more conversation with their kids about what they’re putting into their bodies. All of these are small steps on the road to change, and we should be recognizing that small steps can also be part of a large revolution. Every baked potato, grilled chicken breast, and steamed vegetable is a rung on the ladder that rises above the deep fry.