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Food Deserts and the Home Economics Revival

You can lead a person out of the food desert, but you can’t make them eat healthy. For that, you need the once-hallowed field of home economics and consumer science, which is due for a comeback.

WPA food poster

 

A couple weeks ago I wrote about some new studies on food deserts and obesity, the subject of an article by the New York Times’s Gina Kolata, which cause waves by raising the question of whether food deserts have much to do with obesity in the first place. The piece generated some good responses; for instance, Tracie McMillan, author of the new The American Way of Eating:

[I]t’s good to complicate our thinking on this. Access has never been the only problem when it comes to changing the way we eat. That said, it is certainly part of the problem and needs to be addressed head on. These studies don’t suggest that healthy food options are not important, just that they are not a silver bullet solution.

McMillan also addresses a point I raised—"food desert” is sort of a tricky term, because it implies an either/or relationship. If you look at food access over the space of a couple miles, the desert can disappear; if you look at it as relative access to groceries and fast food from specific places, it re-emerges.

Another came from Mother Jones food and ag blogger Tom Philpott, reiterating McMillan’s point:

If I’m not accustomed to exercise, it’s highly doubtful that sudden access to a state-of-the-art gym is going to turn me into a fitness nut. Daily practices like eating form out of habit, and habits don’t change quickly or easily.

How does Philpott propose we change habits? It’ll sound familar if you’ve been reading Monica Eng’s excellent reporting on the subject:

Foodways are an expression of habit. True, habits evolve and can be transformed. Most people who now populate the sustainable-food movement — including me — grew up eating bad school food, McDonald’s, TV dinners, etc. But habits also have tremendous momentum. The vast majority of people in my generation — I’m 44 — remain hooked on highly processed junk. In other words, they follow the societal norm with regard to food. And the school cafeteria helps establish that norm.

[snip]

What we’re doing in public-school cafeterias is helping brutalize the palates of today’s children. We’re helping mint literally millions of customers for a food industry that generates tremendous profit selling cheap, abysmal, and, indeed, ecologically ruinous food.

Unsurprisingly, Philpott was inspired in part by the formerly-anonymous CPS lunch blogger “Mrs. Q,” whom Eng profiled last year.

I both agree and disagree with Philpott. Anecdata isn’t data, but: I went to a small alternative school from K-12. It was so small it didn’t have a cafeteria, so my mom made lunch for me. My palate wasn’t brutalized; what I recall most frequently were modestly sized sandwiches, vegetables, and fruit juice, with the occasional Lunchable (the devolved Americanized bento box of my youth) to satiate my craving for prepackaged crap.

Then I went to college, where I’d bring bacon and sausage to snack on during morning classes.

I grew up on healthy lunches. What I didn’t learn how to do was cook. That I’m stereotypically terrible at: bad at planning, bad at using ingredients before they expire, bad at preparation techniques, basically bad at everything except making meatloaf. And my meatloaf is very good, but it’s not an especially good alternative to fast food for any ingredient other than love. I can follow a recipe, insofar as I can follow instructions of any kind. (Most of the time; I did manage to blow up a piece of salmon in the microwave this week, which was novel and entertaining.) But that’s not cooking.

Which is why I like “Time to Revive Home Ec,” a piece by Michigan State prof Helen Zoe Veit:

The home economics movement was founded on the belief that housework and food preparation were important subjects that should be studied scientifically. The first classes occurred in the agricultural and technical colleges that were built from the proceeds of federal land grants in the 1860s.

[snip]

[I]n the early 20th century, home economics was a serious subject. When few understood germ theory and almost no one had heard of vitamins, home economics classes offered vital information about washing hands regularly, eating fruits and vegetables and not feeding coffee to babies, among other lessons.

Those land-grant colleges, as you might expect, were centered in the Midwest: Iowa, the University of Illinois, Kansas State, Iowa State, Bradley. Even the historically impractical University of Chicago had a home-ec program, though they couldn’t resist giving it a stuffy name, “the section on Sanitary Science of the Department of Social Science and Anthropology.” It included courses in House Sanitation (“ventilation, heating, drainage, plumbing, lighting, and furnishing"), The Citizen as Householder (“the control of the householder by the state and his freedom in relation to sanitation and food supplies"), and The Economy of Living (“the scientific principles of the application of heat to food materials, the chemistry of cleaning and domestic service").

The first professional organization of home economists was a product of the Columbian Exposition:

The objective of this association was to establish bureaus of information about the needs of employers and the employed, promoting among members a more scientific knowledge of the economic value of foods and fuels, advancing a more intelligent understanding of correct plumbing and drainage in the homes as well as the need for pure water and good lights, securing skilled labor in every department of the home, and organizing schools of household science and services.

In the Hotel Guyon (subject of my last post), the Tribune hosted cooking schools that attracted thousands. But it wasn’t just about cooking; Ellen Swallow Richards, who set up the home-econ exhibit at the World’s Fair, is recognized as an early urban environmentalist, as “home economics” became “home ecology” and “municipal housekeeping.”

As the 19th century became the 20th, home economics evolved into “consumer science”:  “In 1908, the [Lake Placid] conferences led to the creation of the American Home Economics Association, which lobbied the federal government to fund educational programs, and the resultant classes were a means of guiding young people through modern consumer culture.”

School as a guide to consumer culture sounds off-putting, no less because I went to a hippie school. But I also didn’t learn how to cook, or how to navigate it there, and it consumed me as much as I consumed it. That’s changed, thanks to writers like Philpott, Michael Pollan, and Mark Bittman, all heirs to Ellen Swallow Richards and her bretheren. Whether a new home economics or consumer science arises in turn remains to be seen.

 

Photograph: Library of Congress/WPA

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