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Food Goes to School : The Last Home Ec Teacher?

June 10, 1993|HELENE SIEGEL | Freelance writer Helene Siegel's 12-year-old son does not cook. and

In a building in dire need of a paint job, Judith Wolfe's room is spotless. Her six ovens and sinks are scrubbed, the cupboards and drawers are neatly labeled, the floor is swept and 32 chef's aprons are freshly washed and neatly hung in the closet.

Wolfe has to be highly organized. Every day the diminutive Los Angeles native teaches home economics to some 150 high-energy students at James A. Foshay Junior High School in South-Central Los Angeles.

She teaches them how to read and follow recipes, select foods wisely, discern the hidden messages in advertisements, do the math necessary to adapt recipes and clean up after themselves. And she does not take her job lightly. As she tells students, "You will be eating for the rest of your lives."

Her goal is to make that experience as pleasurable and healthful as possible. "I want them to learn in a fun way," she says. "I don't want them to fail. I want them to have success." And so she speaks softly but authoritatively, doesn't give tests and laughs at her students' jokes. In exchange, she says, they learn "how to take care of themselves."

Wolfe is one of a vanishing breed. Since she started teaching in 1965, the focus in schools has shifted. The metal and wood shops that flourished a decade ago no longer exist. Sewing has been phased out. And Wolfe reigns over the last home economics room at Foshay.

Sewing, says principal Howard Lapin, lost its appeal because students in the predominantly Latino school have become sensitive to the poor conditions and low wages in garment factory jobs. Carpentry no longer appeals to kids. But working in a restaurant kitchen garners respect, so there is still some demand for cooking classes.

It doesn't hurt to have a teacher like Wolfe, "who draws children to her," says Lapin. Although kids let off steam in her classroom--twirling an occasional pizza in the air, flirting with a well-dressed young chef or snatching an extra oatmeal raisin cookie--they also seem to listen carefully to what she has to say.

When I visited there recently, the students were learning that " pasta is the Italian word for noodles," "a colander is a strainer with feet" and how to set a table. Under Wolfe's protective gaze they also learned the proper way to remove a tray of cookies from a hot oven--carefully, with two pot holders.

Wolfe says that, despite the diminishing emphasis on home economics in schools, the curriculum is more relevant now than ever before. As she sees it, there is a greater need to teach cooking skills to children, who rarely see cooking or baking being done at home. And some of her students are already raising their own children, or shopping and cooking for extended families while their parents work.

And, adds Lapin, "They are probably learning more reading and math from Mrs. Wolfe than in their algebra classes."

Since Wolfe's students--about 50% of whom are boys--bring a serious interest in eating to class, she captures their attention immediately with foods that have resonance in their lives. She teaches recipes such as taco casserole, Mexican wedding cake, six-foot burritos, baked cavatelli , German pretzels, won tons, fried rice and pizza--all from scratch. The most frequently asked question in her classroom is: "When do we eat?"

Along the way she sneaks in information about why it is healthier to choose low-fat over whole milk, whole-wheat over flour tortillas and carrot sticks over chips. Wolfe, who is a vegetarian, is convinced that if she can teach them "to make food selections in favor of their bodies," she is doing a job she can be proud of.

On my recent visit, students seemed receptive to what she had to say, in part because of the way she said it. The kids love her. "If you don't know something she explains it," says 8th-grader Shanette James. "She doesn't holler. She treats us like we are her own kids." James likes the class so much she would like to take home economics again next year.

That shouldn't be a problem at Foshay. But at other schools home economics does not have much of a future. The two other Los Angeles public schools in which Wolfe has taught--Mark Twain and Emerson--no longer offer cooking.

Kirsten Giving, instructional adviser for home economics for the Los Angles Unified School District, says that it is increasingly difficult to find replacements for retiring teachers. Most of today's home economists would rather go into the business world than face a room full of hungry adolescents. Even those who do go into the field often find home economics so difficult that they quickly switch to something less demanding, such as counseling or teaching math. After all, when you teach math you don't have to do the laundry or shop for ingredients.

Even Wolfe, who went into home economics because she loves to cook and sew, admits that she finds the physical demands grueling and might choose differently today. The rewards, on the other hand, may not be quite so sweet.

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