Matter of Taste: Home Economics

home economics cooking matters

Home economics hasn’t died, it’s just been reinterpreted. While it could be easy to believe it only exists in boutique classes and Portlandia canning episodes, home economics is being carefully cultivated throughout the Bay Area by various organizations and partnerships. What was once called Home Economics was rebranded in the 1990s as Home and Consumer Sciences, but the fundamentals are the same: buying healthy food and cooking at home gives us agency over our health and our lifestyle, no matter our socioeconomic status or cultural background; food literacy is health literacy.

According to the Association of Family and Consumer Services (AFCS), enrollment in home economics classes has declined by nearly 40% in the last ten years. We work more, schedule our kids into the evening, and eat out more. The average San Francisco household spends 43.3% of its food budget on food away from home. Home economics is often the last thing on our minds. But maybe it should be the first. With that decline in Home and Consumer Sciences, what is the price we are paying for convenience over financial and food literacy? Strained budgets and bulging waistlines are two things that come to mind, which is why Michelle Obama pushed for a renaissance of Home and Consumer Sciences.

Etymologically, the word economics means “the art of managing a household,” which makes perfect sense, since the home is the incubatory center of how we manage ourselves and the world around us. At the turn of the 20th century, when Americans began to consume more than they produced and schooling became mandatory, economics was a standard. The science (or art) of keeping a home was considered a woman’s domain, as illustrated in any vintage cookbook or variety magazine of the time.

One could argue that it is precisely because home economics was considered feminine that it has received less funding and recognition in our public school systems. It could also be that as higher education became de rigueur and gender roles changed, we lost information about how to use cooking and economics as ways to connect, save money, or engage with children. A “soft science,” home economics faded as we became more urbanized and institutionalized.

As always, when there is a drop-off in the public sector of a formally institutionalized philosophy or effort, the nonprofit sector has often taken the reins and made Home and Consumer Sciences its own. 18 Reasons, a nonprofit cooking school based in the Mission, works with Cooking Matters, a national food literacy program for low-income youth, adults and families, and is at the helm of the effort to keep home economics current and accessible. It is defying the statistics of decline.

Sarah Nelson, executive director of 18 Reasons, hosted me at one of their Cooking Matters classes for families in the Sheridan Elementary School cafeteria on a Wednesday evening. We met in front of the school and, as she dismounted her bike, she greeted me warmly with a firm handshake. Six families attended, ready to make the evening’s menu of breakfast foods: homemade granola, smoothies, parfaits and breakfast burritos. The instructor connected the meals to stocking the cupboard, freezer and refrigerator with grains, nuts, dried fruit, frozen berries, red peppers, spinach, chard and yogurt. Kim, one of the longtime volunteer instructors, asked the kids what their first task would be and laughed when the children replied with a resounding “Wash your hands!” As soon as the kids were given the green light, they joined their adults at the different stations with giggles and enthusiasm as they chopped dates and bell peppers with safety knives. They were learning measurement, knife skills, social skills, menu planning and how to shop efficiently. Clatters and chatter bounced off the walls of the cafeteria in a cheerful staccato, and I asked Nelson what it takes to make this enterprise work.

“Our culture celebrates food as entertainment versus a process of efficiency; meal kits and cooking shows have the potential to erase the kind of thinking required to budget and cook in a home economics model. Here, we’re teaching the immense satisfaction of doing things for yourself. Home cooking is coming back. People have more information on nutrition and health now, and are demanding more. Even the kids are asking for more.” She gestured around at the cafeteria walls filled with bright posters promoting fruits and vegetables. I asked each parent why they had signed up for the six-week class and they all said their children had asked for it.

“I was really interested because my daughter wants me to cook with less oil and sugar. The food here is good. I discovered how to cook broccoli so it tastes good,” said Jacqueline Campos with her daughter, Lisbeth. Another parent, Samir Golubovic, said he and his fourth-grade daughter read nutrition labels together now. These bonding experiences are the ingredients of home economics.

Partnerships also make 18 Reasons’ endeavor with Cooking Matters a thriving and growing effort; there are 4,000 participants a year, 600 of whom are children. Nelson said that while a minor portion of 18 Reasons’ profits are used to help fund Cooking Matters, the lion’s share of their support comes from the San Francisco Department of Public Health, Kaiser Permanente and Walmart, to name a few. 18 Reasons’ partners include the YMCA and Imperfect Produce, along with many of the Bay Area’s public schools.

“Our donors and partners are seeing the bigger picture of financial, housing and medical security,” said Nelson. With food deserts and obesity still major issues for our country, 18 Reasons’ 2017 annual report shows how vital home economics is, especially for underserved communities. Through Cooking Matters, they held 239 tours through grocery and corner stores to teach students how to shop smart. They distributed 24,000 pounds of groceries and partnered with 98 community organizations. With an 84% graduation rate, it looks like San Francisco’s foodie reputation is only going to grow and become more diverse.

Art or science, the economy of health and culture usually starts with food, and while home economics and consumer sciences may not be on the class list at a high school, chances are the classes are just happening after school hours. Just listen for the blender or the sizzling of chopped veggies in a pan.