Huge Acheson: No-Fear Home Economics

Hugh Acheson tries his darndest to overhaul the classic class.

The other day I was having coffee (Tonx coffee from an Aeropress if you play a Barista part time) and writing through a schedule when I had a thought: “What if we revamped Home Economics?” The thought before that was something like, “If I was an extra in the TJ Hooker series, what would my speaking lines be?” They are not all altruistic thoughts. 

But the home ec stuff is a good thought. Thoughts like this come into my little brain frequently, thoughts that revolve around the notion of making the world a better place through food, thoughts that pivot around the role of the chef community in the betterment of society. Many of these thoughts are stupidly naïve and grandiose, unachievable and complete wastes of time, but some gather steam as good ideas that could make a difference.  

So the idea was simple: fixing the curriculum of Home Econ or Consumer Sciences could make kids more food aware, healthier, and give them tools for a hard future.  

My problem is I had no real understanding of the subject or what the status was in the curriculum of schools these days, but I surmised that because of the absence of food knowledge in the vast majority of school-aged kids, the curriculum just was not really up to snuff. 

A short virtual research trip to the Google and a couple of phone calls found that the subject had recently been canned in our public school district (Athens Clarke County) and the school systems where it was still in effect were using a course syllabus from about 40 years ago. The textbooks were absolutely boring and dated. The food talked about was pretty crappy-looking. There was a lot of gender specific pre-natal care stuff that would scare the bejeebus out of any male in his young teens. there was a lot of talk about food borne illnesses and bacteria… way to get kids excited about food! One class with a focus on listeria and I would probably have skipped the rest of the classes to hang out in the parking lot and play hi-lo. Trust me, I was a very typical student and this stuff would have put the lights out in my brain.Sadness seeped into me. But instead of getting morose my brain put on its little SuperHughman outfit and went to work. “I can do this,” I told myself, self-affirmation being a key tool in getting things done that you know nothing about. I learned this from the small red-headed kid on YouTube who had that viral video where she lists, very excitedly, all the things she loves. This is how the modern age works.

I rarely come up against a topic that scares me. It’s a flaw and a strength at the same time. I have a No Fear sticker on my butt. My SuperHughman brain started thinking about the whole idea. 

Teaching basic cooking skills to young people can level the playing field in a number of ways and upend the class structure that puts many in the bottom rungs of society more susceptible to diabetes and obesity. Life skills are what kids need, in addition to the regular load, and leader of the pack in life skills s the ability to feed yourself well, within a budget, using fresh foods. This is so basic, but it's just not happening.  

A friend leads a youth group of kids who are not in the richer zipcodes of our area. They are poor. Period. My friend was chatting with a kid, a kid who was overweight, about life and food. To this kid dinner meant instant food, fast food, and processed food. She asked the kid about diabetes and the kid responded that most of her family had diabetes and that she expected to get it too, but that was OK given the medicines that are out there. The saddest thing in society is resignation to an unhealthy lifestyle. I talked with my friend about being able to empower this kid to break out of the mold, to instill a healthy pride through food that would last a lifetime. Imagine that kid in 30 years bragging about how against all odds she broke the family trend and lived a healthy life. Imagine that kid wide-eyed at the thought of roasted beets, freshly-picked arugula, a local egg, or local berries. Imagine that kid connecting with her family through making a pie, or cooking a stew or just having a nice home-cooked meal. Why is this a foreign concept to many of our kids in this country?So, the bee in my bonnet was swarming and I had a meeting with the very charismatic Superintendent of the school district. It went well and next thing I know am touring around the schools. I was amazed at what they had: greenhouses, chicken runs, full kitchens with oven workstations, fully operational restaurant-style kitchen (nicer than any of my kitchens)… but it was all being used in slightly the wrong way or more often the case, not at all. 

I am now writing a syllabus for possible reinstitution of Home Ec in the school system starting at my local middle school where my two daughters will be going to school within four years. The grandiose plan that I have created is this: I will lean on my chef friends, community-minded academics at the University of Georgia, groups like Wholesome Wave and Share our Strength, doctors, thinkers, parents, and politicians and together we will come up with a nine-week curriculum that will engage kids with pertinent life skills.

This is what I have so far: 

Week 1: Food 101 - how it affects your family and your community

Week 2: Pickling and preserving

Week 3: Fixing stuff. Sewing stuff. Cleaning stuff

Week 4: Basic basic finance (like balancing a checkbook). Small business 101. Rational thought when it comes to money

Week 5: Local, sustainable, and organic… what the heck does all that mean?

Week 6: Good mold/ bad mold. Making our own cheese. 

Week 7: Raising chickens, cooking chickens 

Week 8: Three pasta dishes to feed four people for under $10

Week 9: Basic gardening. urban guerrilla style.

This is a rough sketch, but this is a week’s work, part time by little old me.  It has a ways to go but we would have a single instructor with guest teachers on every Friday to add some end-game excitement to the weekly topic. Within every community there are so many people who are smart, engaging, and willing to share their time, we just have to ask. UGA has the national center of canning and food preservation. Canning is hip right now. How do we get hip canning into the minds of an eleven year old so they always understand how to pickle and their view of canning will extend beyond a relish package at a fast food joint?

A we celebrate Earth Day we need to be realistic that the Earth is only going to get taken care of by a generation of healthy people who understand the basics of food.

But before we scrap the present playing field, let’s step back and look at what is underutilized, what needs modernizing, and what excitement and passion is out there that just needs to be harnessed in the right way to make a difference. The healthier our kids, the healthier our little planet.  

As always, follow me on the Twitter @hughacheson