In high school, I thought home economics classes were a waste of time; they seemed to be vestigial remnants from the days when women could be homemakers, reduced to providing easy credits to dull students.
That I only discovered last year the function of the broil setting suggests my judgement was rash.
I mostly don’t mind cooking, but my everyday meals (as opposed to the occasional meals which double as recreational or social activities) are pretty spartan. Eggs, sandwiches, pasta, and ground beef are the staple of my diet. I can come up with any number of excuses (some lamer than others), but I want to share some that are relevant to discussions of health/obesity and social justice – after the break.
The up-front costs of cooking at home. Just about anyone can figure out how to fry an egg, but do you own a decent pan? How about microwave-safe and oven-safe dishes? Or even an oven? Cooking, like driving, requires an initial investment that we tend to forget about when we do the mental accounting later.
Getting the food and keeping it from spoiling. Good food, as a general rule, has an expiration date. A decent refrigerator is another up-front cost, but even that only buys you a few days of food safety. In addition to the limit on how long food keeps in the refrigerator, there is only so much food you can store in the freezer. If you plan on eating fresh/frozen vegetables and meat with any kind of regularity, this means regular visits to a supermarket. I don’t want to harp on this, but that’s no small feat if you don’t have a car. Have you ever brought bags of groceries on a crowded bus? It’s not fun.
The price of food. We live in a lucky country where most people don’t exactly starve, but getting good nutrition is an issue. That’s the difference between getting enough calories and getting enough vitamins and minerals (etc). Even if we accept the arguement that vegetables and chicken breasts are affordable, bad food is even cheaper and that makes it attractive. When I see a TV dinner for 99 cents, it doesn’t matter that it contains enough fat to last me a week or that it will taste like salty, soggy cardboard. It’s a meal for Ninety-Nine Freaking Cents. They’re my kryptonite.
Cooking Skills. This is Jamie Oliver’s thing. Even if I managed to get my hands on some 99-cents arugula, I wouldn’t know what to do with it. Frankly, even if I found a delicious-sounding recipe, I might not have enough confidence in my cooking skills to try. I’d love to make meatloaf and it sounds straightforward, but I can’t imagine losing that much meat (and money) if it didn’t turn out.
So what are we to do? I don’t have many answers.
On the skills front, I hesitate to suggest a mandatory home economics class for high-school students because I can’t imagine what would be cut to make room in the curriculum. The government should already be supporting life skills (computers, personal accounting, cooking, etc.) training for the people who need it, but if that is not the case, let’s get on it.
There’s not much that can be done for the price of food. (“Fat taxes” are probably a political impossibility.) I do, however, like how Ireland uses meals in part to measure poverty. “Have a roast joint or its equivalent once a week” is not just a good measure of deprivation or a lack of it, but is probably a good proxy for owning a decent oven as well.
Eating badly is a big deal, and in the face of rising obesity rates which especially affect the poor, we need to take more effective measures than just telling people to get a certain number of servings of this and that each day.