By Chris Montanini, Londoner
What happened to home economics?
At one time it was something high school students couldn’t avoid. Today, the term sounds a little old fashioned.
But maybe it’s time to rethink the idea.
The Ontario Home Economics Association (OHEA) is currently circulating a petition urging Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynn and Education Minister Liz Sandals to make at least one food and nutrition course a requirement for students to earn their high school diploma. The pitch claims one in three children and youth in Canada are obese and reintroducing home economics courses for young Canadians could help address the problem.
As of Oct. 31, the petition included over 2,100 signatures.
June Matthews, a professional home economist (PHEc), member of OHEA, and associate professor in Food and Nutritional Sciences at Brescia University College, whole-heartedly supports the idea.
“The ripple effects are going to go way beyond simple cooking skills,” she argues. “It’s hot now because people understand there is a private benefit for people learning how to cook … but there’s also a public benefit because if we have healthier populations, we have decreased health care costs. We all know almost 50 per cent of our (provincial) budget is spent on health care. It’s unsustainable.”
Matthews suggested home economics’ century-long history is a disadvantage today — particularly if people associate it with women being forced back into the home following the return of soldiers from the Second World War. There’s no doubt though that food literacy is in high demand right now, so Matthews and her colleagues are making a case for a new way to bring it back to the classroom.
Their plan is to leave it in the hands of students.
Matthews, Paula Dworatzek, another associate professor in Food and Nutritional Sciences at Brescia, and Anne Zok, nutrition manager for Hospitality Services at Western University, have been supervising a program called Food Resources and Education for Student Health (FRESH) since 2010.
FRESH is unique because it was designed by and for university students. The peer education program focused on food literacy, awareness and influencing the campus food environment, originates from a class assignment for graduate students in the master’s of science in food nutrition program. It launched in eight residences across Western in 2012 and is expanded or revised by master’s students every year.
Student-developed programs under the FRESH banner include peer-to-peer education sessions with evidenced-based information on food and nutrition and a system that identifies the healthiest options available on daily menus and in campus vending machines.
Undergraduate students take part too. About 50 are chosen to volunteer with the FRESH Club and they’re tasked with much of the peer education duties.
“I personally think it’s all about choices,” Zok said Oct. 24, while FRESH Club members ran an interactive cooking class on campus for incoming international students at Western. “We have to present (students) with choices and we have to educate students about making those selections.Essentially what FRESH allows us to do is nudge the students … towards some of the healthier options.”
Zok is tracking the number of FRESH-approved choices on the six-week rotating menu available at residences on campus and said it improves every year.
Brescia students will also bring the FRESH program to Oakridge Secondary School and introduce it to high school students for the first time this year. Events at the school are planned every day during the first week of November and 31 Oakridge students have applied to participate. Afterwards the Oakridge Fresh Club will host an event every two weeks.
Matthews said she’ll send a report to the Ministry of Education summarizing results next year and will make available an online template for other high schools interested in the program.
Peer education programs have proved effective in other demographics such as breast-feeding moms and new immigrants to Canada, Matthews added. Why not home economics?
“It’s very successful because people relate to others who are similar to themselves,” Matthews said. “We’re already realizing it’s different implementing it at a high school than a university. We’re looking at a different population group, so it’s a little bit challenging, but we’re learning from that.”
As FRESH grows, Matthews is excited about it’s potential to impact wider food issues like food security and food waste. At a United Nations DPI/NGO conference in August, she said food waste represents one-half to one-third of global food production, contributes to about 14 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions and in Canada, 18-24 year olds waste more food than those over 55.
“If we can teach food literacy to this generation we’re addressing not only a private value in terms of their health, decreasing health care costs and so on, but we’re addressing global warming, I think that’s pretty significant,” Matthews said.